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CHALIAPIN, Feodor: A Vocal Portrait

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Feodor Chaliapin (1873-1938)

A Vocal Portrait

‘The truth and directness of his singing are such that one forgets it is singing; singing usually implies some strain or effort, but Chaliapin’s seems the most inevitably natural utterance’.

Richard Capell, 1914

The international career of Feodor Ivanovich Chaliapin began in Milan in March 1901 with performances of Boito’s Mefistofele and ended only months before his death in Paris in 1938. During this period he recorded some 130 different titles and this Vocal Portrait includes discs made throughout this career, from several different corners of his repertory.

Well before that auspicious Italian début, in which Caruso also sang, — a thousand pities that they never recorded together - Chaliapin had achieved considerable success in his Russian homeland, first with appearances at Tiflis Opera in 1893, soon progressing to the Imperial Opera at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, where he became a friend of the actor Mamont Dalsky. Under Dalsky’s direction, Chaliapin learned much about the mental and psychological preparation needed for opera performance, wisdom that he brought to bear on performances throughout his life and which assured him the reputation as the twentieth century’s supreme dramatic basso. From St Petersburg, Chaliapin moved in 1896 to Moscow and in 1899 joined the Bolshoy Opera, of which he remained a member until the outbreak of the First World War. By that time he had already sung at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (1907-8), with Dyagilev’s company in Paris (from 1908), and with the same ensemble at London’s Drury Lane Theatre in 1913-14. Chaliapin returned to the Mariinsky at the end of the war, but finally left Russia in 1921, never to return. He was already widely known for his portrayals of Boris and Varlaam in Boris Godunov, Mephistopheles (both Boito’s and Gounod’s); Don Quichotte in Massenet’s opera, which he created in Monte Carlo in 1910, and Igor, Galitzkiy and Khan Konchak in Borodin’s Prince Igor. Of these rôles Chaliapin was the greatest interpreter of his day. His impersonations of Don Basilio in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Leporello in Don Giovanni, and King Philip in Don Carlos were similarly celebrated, if less idiomatic than his other assumptions. To them all he brought an individual approach and a huge physical stage presence that dominated every performance.

In the world of song, again principally Russian, Chaliapin was also an eager interpreter, though as the accompanist Gerald Moore recalled in his Memoirs of an Accompanist —Am I too Loud?:

‘…in the light of my experience now, I say that Chaliapin was not a first-class Lieder singer…The most discriminating devotee of Schubert or Schumann would be swept, temporarily at least, off his feet, against his better judgment, by the man’s histrionic mastery and the power of his personal magnetism…It was all a question of mood - not the mood of the music but of the singer and whether he considered himself in good voice or not…Yet there is no doubt in my mind that I was playing for a great singer, who could lift the audience out of their seats and thrill them as few basses before or since have been able to thrill. Certainly I have never been associated with a more exciting artist.’

Moore might have continued by adding that the performance here of Brahms’ Sapphische Ode (in Russian) must be one of the most gravely beautiful ever recorded.

The excitement generated by Chaliapin resulted largely from his superb vocal technique. The voice was even throughout its range, allowing him to tackle selected baritone rôles as successfully as his customary bass ones; it was sharply focused, free of vibrato and could be fined down to the merest thread of sound when the music (or, rather, Chaliapin’s understanding of the music) demanded it. That the voice changed little during Chaliapin’s life is amply demonstrated by the present recordings, which cover a 35 year period.

The earliest disc here. Korganov’s Elegy, was one of a group of recordings that Chaliapin made at the Hotel Continental in Moscow. In 1902 the great impresario of the gramophone world Fred Gaisberg took Chaliapin under his wing (the image of anyone taking Chaliapin under their wing is bizarre, but both men valued their long and fruitful recording partnership) and was thereafter responsible for many of Chaliapin’s finest recordings. In those early days, Chaliapin’s recording sessions took place principally in Moscow, St Petersburg and the Latvian capital, Riga.

In 1908, during Chaliapin’s first season with Dyagilev in Paris, he recorded several items from his repertory. The Lakmé aria (again, in Russian) illustrates how well the acoustic recording system suited his voice, achieving far more realistic results than many higher-voiced singers. Chaliapin made further records in Paris during the electric era, including the scenes from Faust in 1930; he was not now a visitor to the city but a resident, from where he set out on many overseas tours during the last fifteen years of his life.

Oroveso’s aria from Norma was one of a number of sides made during the singer’s only Italian recording session, held in Milan in April 1912. Its conductor, Carlo Sabajno, was responsible for literally hundreds of superb operatic discs made for HMV well into the age of electrical recording.

Chaliapin’s American recordings were made during his return seasons to the Met. The previously unpublished take of the second part of King Philip’s great aria from Don Carlos was recorded just ten days before his first New York performance of the rôle, in the company of Ponselle and Martinelli.

While singing at Drury Lane for the first time under Joseph Beecham’s management in 1913, Chaliapin undertook the first of his many recording sessions in London. Tchaikovsky’s The Nightingale was one of eight published sides from the session held in the primitive studio of the City Road. When new recording premises were built in Hayes, alongside the Gramophone Company’s factory to the west of the capital, Chaliapin was invited to open them and it was there that he made many of his best acoustic records after the First World War. Later sessions were held in the much-lamented Queen’s Hall, London’s principal concert venue of the time, in Kingsway Hall, now a hotel, (CD 2 track 8) and, most famously, at Covent Garden in 1926 and 1928; these discs reveal Chaliapin at his most theatrically magnificent. At different times he made several recordings of extracts from Mefistofele, his Son lo spirito marked by a demonic whistle, a terrifying interpretation. The live Boris Godunov extracts are Chaliapin’s greatest memorial. Had he made no other records, posterity would judge him fairly from this vivid portrayal, despite the variety of language used (Chaliapin sang Russian, the rest of the cast Italian) and the hazards encountered when recording during an actual performance.

Chaliapin’s two final records were made during a tour to Japan in 1936 and he returned to his musical roots for an eloquent farewell. Both songs are included here, The Song of the Flea and The Song of the Volga Boatmen. These look back to the singer’s Russian origins and include a commemoration of the mighty river which flows through Kazan, the city of Chaliapin’s birth just 63 years earlier.

Paul Campion

Ward Marston

In 1997 Ward Marston was nominated for the Best Historical Album Grammy A
Disc: 1
1 Don Giovann: Madamina, il catalogo e questo
2 Norma: Ite sul colle, o Druidi
3 Lucrezia Borgia: Vieni, la mia vendetta
4 Roberto il diavolo: Le rovine...Suore che riposate
5 Ernani: Che mai vegg'io!...Infelice
6 Don Carlos: Dormiro sol
7 La boheme: Vecchia zimarra
8 Lakme: Lakme, ton doux regard
9 The Demon: Do not weep, child
10 The Demon: On the ocean of the air
11 Prince Igor: Have you enjoyed yourself, Prince?...
12 Prince Igor: Are you well, Prince?
13 Prince Igor: Neither sleep nor rest
14 The Song of the Flea
15 Elegy
16 The Nightingale
17 When yesterday we met, Op. 26, No. 13
18 Chanson Bachique, Op. 27 No. 1
19 Sapphische Ode, Op. 94, No. 4
20 Abschied, Op. 4, No. 3
21 Stambogsrim, Op. 25, No. 3
22 Maschenka
Disc: 2
Song of the Volga Boatmen
1 Il Barbiere di Siviglia: La calunnia
2 La Sonnambula: Il mulino, il fonte...Vi ravviso
3 Faust: Un rat, plus poltron...Le veau d'or
4 Faust: Vous qui faites l'endormie
5 Mefistofele: Ave Signor!
6 Mefistofele: Son lo spirito
7 Don Quichotte: Oh, mon maitre...Oui! Je fus le che
8 Ruslan and Ludmila: O joy!...the hour of my triump
9 Sadko: Against the cruel crags
10 Boris Godunov: In the town of Kazan
11 Boris Godunov: Boris's Farewell and Death Scene
12 Aleko: All the gypsy camp is sleeping
13 Trepak from Songs and Dances of Death
14 Persian Love Song, Op. 34, No. 9
15 Down the Petersky
16 Black Eyes
17 The Song of the Flea
18 Song of the Volga Boatmen
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