Aleko (Delos DE 3269)
Sergei Rachmaninoff composed so brilliantly for the piano - and played so brilliantly on the piano - that his other efforts have often been overlooked. Those efforts include three operas that deserve to be better known, including "Aleko," which he wrote in 1892 at the age of 19 as a graduation exercise for the Moscow Conservatory. This is no mere student work, but a remarkably assured one-act, one-hour opera. That it was quickly accepted by the Bolshoi Opera for production the next year says something about its quality; Tchaikovsky was at the premiere, joining in the applause.
By 1905, Rachmaninoff finished two more operas, then abandoned the genre. Although he did not create an operatic masterpiece, what he achieved with "Aleko," "The Miserly Knight" and "Francesca da Rimini" is more than enough to warrant attention and respect.
This new recording - the first in a welcome series of the Rachmaninoff operas from Delos - makes a strong case for "Aleko," which bears some striking similarities in theme and construction to "Cavalleria Rusticana" and "Pagliacci." Jealous love is at the heart of the story, based on a Pushkin poem about an aging Gypsy (Aleko), his younger wife (Zemfira) and her lover (the Young Gypsy). The details of the triangle are quickly laid out; an orchestral intermezzo then separates the equally quick denouement, with its two corpses, a remorseful killer and horrified chorus.
It's easy to find flaws in the libretto, which doesn't flesh out the characters, and the score, which could use a stronger musical thread to hold together the series of set pieces. But the richness of Rachmaninoff's melodic ideas provides ample compensation. The choral writing is especially beautiful, nowhere more so than in the finale, when the Gypsies banish Aleko from their midst.
Conductor Constantine Orbelian approaches the opera with obvious affection, inspiring a committed, vivid performance. Baritone Vassily Gerello sings the title role persuasively. Olga Guryakova's soprano gives Zemfira a vibrant edge. Vsevolod Grivnov, as the Young Gypsy, reveals a sturdy, expressive tenor. A solid chorus and smooth playing by the Moscow Chamber Orchestra complete the attractions. There's also a bonus CD containing the Pushkin poem that inspired the opera, read in English (with delightful vocal coloring) by Michael York and in Russian by Vassily Lanovoy. * * *
Transcriptions for Orchestra (Sony Classical SK 89012)
BACH: Unaccompanied Cello Suites. Edgar Meyer, double bassist. (Sony Classical SK 89183)
This year's 250th anniversary of Bach's death has spawned the expected concerts and recordings of his incomparable music, many of them religiously faithful to the letter of the score. Here and there, something a little different turns up, such as these Sony releases.
Transcribing Bach's original scores from one instrument or group of instruments to another is a centuries' old pastime. So there's nothing radical about taking the unaccompanied cello suites and transferring them to double bass. But the differences between cello and bass are so considerable that you need a genuine virtuoso to carry the idea off, which means that you need Edgar Meyer. His thoughtful transcriptions are not only faithful to Bach, but marvelously convincing; if you didn't know better, you might think Bach had intended them for bass all along.
Meyer's musicality is no less impressive. There is never a hint of stunt in his performances of the first, second and fifth suites; he finds the same kind of intense emotions and deep spirituality in these scores that have so long enraptured cellists.
Bach could not have envisioned a modern symphony orchestra, either its size or its sonority, but he no doubt would have relished writing for one, just as others have since relished arranging his works for one. Although conductor Leopold Stokowski made the biggest splash with his orchestral transcriptions of Bach, he was hardly alone. Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic have rounded up several other notables who dabbled in this practice and put together an entertaining package of souped-up Bach.
Of particular interest is Gustav Mahler's Suite, culled from the second and third of Bach's original orchestral suites. Mahler made this fusion in 1910, when he was head of the New York Philharmonic, and it proved quite a hit with his audiences. Today, steeped in "historically informed" performances of Bach, Mahler's suite cannot help but sound inauthentic, yet it isn't nearly as far-fetched as you might suspect. Indeed, it's a remarkably respectful, highly effective Bach-handed compliment.
The disc also contains imaginative transcriptions by Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern (his treatment of the "Ricecare" from "The Musical Offering" remains astonishingly modern and baroque at the same time), and a couple of Stokowski spectaculars. But the guiltiest pleasure on this dynamically performed collection comes from Sir Edward Elgar, whose reworking of the C minor Fantasy and Fugue, BWV 537, goes marvelously, deliciously, almost deliriously over the top. * * *