BORODIN: Prince Igor
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Alexander Borodin (1834-1887)
Alexander Borodin, the composer of Prince Igor, one ofthe greatest of all Russian operas, once said that for him'music was a pastime, a relaxation from more seriousoccupations'. These 'serious occupations' were thedisciplines of science and medicine, with which heachieved international fame. Born illegitimately to anaristocratic father in St Petersburg in 1833, by the startof adolescence he could play the piano, flute and celloand speak several languages. Although highly adept atmusic, his passion was for experimental chemistry. In1850 he entered the Medico-Surgical Academy atSt Petersburg. On graduation he spent a year as a housesurgeon in a military hospital, followed by three yearsof further study in western Europe. Here he met thebrilliant young pianist Ekaterina Protopova, whom hemarried in 1863, after succeeding to the professorship atthe Academy in 1862. He spent the rest of his lifelecturing and supervising student work, not only inSt Petersburg, but throughout Europe.
Borodin was self-taught in composition, havingstarted as early as when he was nine, until he began totake lessons from Balakirev in 1862. Through Balakirevhe met the composers Cui, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, and together they became known as 'TheFive' or 'The Mighty Handful'. As a group they wereopposed to academic approaches to music; by contrastthey viewed themselves as Russian patriots, standingfor spontaneity and 'truth in music'. With his successfulmedical career, composition was little more than ahobby for Borodin. His opera Prince Igor, despiteoccupying him for eighteen years, remained unfinishedat his death in 1887. It was completed and orchestratedby Glazunov (who drafted the Overture based onrecollections of hearing Borodin play it on the piano)and Rimsky-Korsakov, and was first performed inSt Petersburg on 4th November 1890.
Set in the twelfth century, Prince Igor is a vastnationalist epic, and describes the clash of culturesbetween the Russians, symbolised by Prince Igor, andthe Tartar Polovtski tribe, led by Khan Konchak. Theplot is relatively straight-forward. Following theOverture, in the Prologue Prince Igor sets off to wagewar against the Polovtski. In Act One his wife,Yaroslavna, forces his brother and rival, PrinceGalitsky, to curb his supporters. Word comes that Igorand his son Vladimir have been defeated and captured.
Act Two is set in the Polovtsian camp. Vladmir hasfallen in love with Konchak's daughter, Konchakovna.
Konchak offers to grant Igor his freedom if he ceaseshostilities. Igor refuses. In the Third Act (omitted in thisrecording as was the custom of the time) Igor escapes,but without his son. Konchak refuses to pursue Igor. Heretains Vladimir as a hostage and marries him toKonchakovna. Act Four brings the opera to a close: Igorreturns safely to Russia, is greeted with rejoicing, andvows to raise fresh troops with which to meet thePolovtski threat.
This historic recording was made in Moscowduring 1951 and features the legendary Bolshoy Opera,the pre-eminent opera company of the Soviet era, at itspeak. Leading the performance is the conductorAlexander Melik-Pashayev. He joined the Bolshoy in1931, after studying with Nikolai Tcherepnin andAlexander Gauk and leading the Tbilisi Opera. Hereplaced Nikolai Golovanov as the company's chiefconductor in 1953, and did much to extend its repertoirewith both new works and operas from the westerncanon. As with his predecessors Samosud andGolovanov, his reign came to an unexpected end in1962, when he was summarily replaced by EvgenySvetlanov. He died two years later.
The leading r?â??les are taken by the cream of theBolshoy's singers at this time. Yaroslavna, PrinceIgor's wife, is sung by the soprano EvgeniyaSmolenskaya (1919-1989). After making her debut in1945 at Stalingrad she joined the Bolshoy in 1947,singing many dramatic soprano r?â??les with distinctionuntil her retirement in 1972. The other major femaler?â??le, Konchakovna, is taken by Vera Borisenko, bornin 1918. After gaining initial experience in the RedArmy Entertainment Corps and the Kiev Opera shejoined the Bolshoy in 1946 and stayed there for the restof her career. She took first prize in the 1947 PragueInternational Singing Competition, and this part was herfirst major success in Moscow. The tenor SergeyLemeshev (1902-1977), who sings Vladimir, Igor'sson, was one of the biggest Soviet music stars of theperiod. He studied initially at the St Petersburg MilitaryAcademy and later at the Moscow Conservatory, alsostudying acting with Stanislavsky. During the 1920s hesang in the provinces before joining the Bolshoy in1931, where he remained until 1961 as one of thehouse's triumvirate of great tenors, the others beingNelepp and Koslovzky. An enormously popular figure,he recorded extensively and appeared in several films.
The title r?â??le of Prince Igor is taken by the baritone,Andrey Ivanov (1900-1970). Following study at theKiev Conservatory, he served as a member of the KievOpera from 1934 to 1950, when he became a member ofthe Bolshoy company, retiring in 1956. (He is not to beconfused with Alexey Ivanov, 1904-1982, anotherBolshoy baritone of note with a similar repertoire.) Thetwo basses in this recording are jusitifiably legendary.
Alexander Pirogov (1899-1964), who takes the part ofIgor's rival Prince Galitsky, studied in Moscow andjoined the Bolshoy in 1924, where he was bothpreceded and succeeded by other brothers. A singer ofgreat character he recorded the title r?â??le in BorisGodunov with Golovanov conducting in 1948 andparticipated in the 1953 Bolshoy premi?â?¿re andrecording of Shaporin's The Decembrists, alsoconducted by Melik-Pashayev. Igor's adversary KhanKonchak is sung by Mark Reizen (1895-1992). Asoldier in the First World War, he made his operaticdebut in 1921, before joining the Opera in Leningrad.
He visited the West in 1930 when he recorded for EMIin London. He was a member of the Bolshoy companyfrom 1930 until his retirement in 1955, after which hecontinued to appear as a guest, singing on stage there onhis ninetieth birthday, and still exhibiting his formidablestage presence.David Patmore