OP3209. LAKMÉ (in Russian), recorded 1937, w. Orlov Cond. All-Union Radio Ensemble; Nadezhda Kazantseva, Sergei Lemeshev, Alexei Korolev, Anna Malyuta, etc.; SERGEI LEMESHEV: LAKMÉ: Prendre le dessin d’un bijou; ANNA MALYUTA (s), w. Berta Kozel, Pf.): The Bird; The Blue Scarf; I Knew her as a Pretty Baby (both Nikolai Titov). [Aside from Lemeshev's enchanting performance, Kazantseva's beautiful singing offers a remarkably accurate 'Bell Song'!] (Russia) 2-Aquarius AQVR 401. - 4607123631805
“While its Russian language would not make it anyone’s preferred LAKMÉ recording, anyone interested in having a broad picture of great operatic singing of the twentieth century, and/or gaining knowledge of what was hidden behind Russia’s ‘iron curtain’ during the Stalin and post-Stalin years, would find this of interest. Actually, it is more than ‘of interest’, which implies historical importance and perhaps pedagogical enlightenment. This recording will also provide genuine pleasures to anyone who loves the art form, including perhaps the pleasure of discovery.
The recording was made after a 1946 concert performance given by the USSR Radio. The sessions were held in late 1946 and early 1947. At that time operas tended to be performed in the language of the performing company. But those who know other Russian recordings from this era know that the country had a firm connection to international performance standards (many of the great European singers toured regularly to Russia before the Revolution).
The most well-known name in this cast, at least to westerners, would be the tenor Serge Lemeshev (1902-1977). The thought that he and his rival (they were reportedly friendly rivals) Ivan Kozlovsky were the basic house tenors at the Bolshoi for a number of years is mind-boggling. Kozlovsky was more the risk-taker, stretching the music and taking liberties that some find objectionable and others (myself included) find thrilling. Lemeshev was somewhat more conservative in his approach, but absolutely not a dull singer, and many find his voice more pleasant. Kozlovsky’s sharply focused tenor can be an acquired taste; Lemeshev’s voice is richer in basic color. Lemeshev here is a superb Gérard, singing with fluid phrasing, liquid tone, beautiful soft singing, and convincing dramatic involvement.
Nadezhda Kazantseva (1911-2000) may be the most stunning surprise here. She is certainly not as known an artist as Lemeshev (there have been no reviews of her at all in FANFARE). If you think the idea of a Russian coloratura is likely to mean shrill or hard-edged tone, think again. Hers is a bright but never strident lyric soprano with freedom at the top. She avoids the high note at the end of the Bell Song, but creates her own drama by holding and changing the dynamic on the penultimate note. Her lovely and warm voice, ease with the coloratura, and imagination in dynamic shading all add up to a thoroughly satisfying and delightful Lakmé. She may not be as spectacular as Sutherland or Mado Robin, but her performance is worthy of standing alongside others who have successfully recorded the role, such as Natalie Dessay, and in Lemeshev she has perhaps the only Gérard competitive with that of Alain Vanzo on the Sutherland recording. The Lakmé-Gérard duet near the end of the second act is gloriously sung by Kazantseva and Lemeshev.
Another huge asset for this set is the Nilakantha of Alexei Korolev. His dark, strong, evenly produced sound is typical of the best qualities of Russian basses. Mezzo Anna Malyuta’s Malika blends well with Kazantseva in their duet, and she too is dramatically persuasive. The rest of the cast is more than adequate, and Alexander Orlov conducts with force and intensity. A few of the tempi are on the quick side (the duet Viens, Mallika for instance) but because of suppleness of phrasing the music rarely sounds rushed.
The bonuses begin with an earlier recording (the source is unknown but thought to be a film from the late 1930s or early 1940s) of Gérard’s first act aria sung by a more youthful Lemeshev with a gloriously rich timbre. Then we have three songs by Nikolai Titov (1800-1875). Sadly, Aquarius gives us no information other than the titles and the fact that Malyuta recorded them in 1951.
Aquarius’ transfer seems up to their usual high standard. The monaural sound, as seems always the case on Russian originals, is a bit dry and edgy, but not excessively so. Anyone with even a mild tolerance for ‘historical’ recordings will be able to enjoy this. For its illumination of the art of one of the 20th century’s most important tenors - Sergei Lemeshev - this set alone would be of value and importance. Because it also preserves an extremely effective performance of LAKMÉ with a soprano who will be a discovery for many, it is recommended with enthusiasm. Aquarius recordings are available through Norbeck, Peters & Ford.”
- Henry Fogel, FANFARE
“Nadezhda Kazantseva made her début at age 17 and was engaged by the Bolshoi Opera in 1932. She became an instant success in lyric and coloratura soprano rôles, such as Lakmé, Gilda & Violetta. She was named a People’s Artist of the USSR in 1950.”
- VRCS Program Notes, 1992 LP issue
“In Russia, Sergei Yakovlevich Lemeshev (1902-1977) is — along with Feodor Chaliapin — perhaps the most beloved opera singer in recent history. He was born into a very poor peasant family, in a small village, during the years of the Bolshevik revolution and the Civil war, and Lemeshev was required to become a cadet in the Red Army Cavalry School. It was, however, actually the Revolution that helped him make his dream of an operatic career come true, since the Bolsheviks gave the poorest peasants and proletarians a preferential right to free education. Sergei was assigned to study at the Moscow Conservatory where, after surviving a rigorous competition, he was accepted. (This determined his political views, for as he said many times, ‘the Soviets gave me everything’.) In 1931, he became a leading tenor of the Bolshoi, where he sang for the next 34 years, winning great acclaim. His audience grew, along with his fame, and he soon gained a veritable army of fans, called ‘lemeshevists’. His vocal and artistic qualities, evident to every listener, are beauty of timbre, musicality, effortlessness of vocal production, expressiveness, and very clear diction - qualities perhaps most commonly found in bel canto singers. An interesting comment on Lemeshev’s singing was made by the Bolshoi tenor Anatoly Orfenov: ‘He developed a mixed voice of incomparable beauty, which made it possible for him to take the highest notes with such beautiful richness that even specialists could not explain how it was done technically….His high C’s … sounded virile and full…His manner of lowering his larynx a bit on high notes allowed him to perform the parts which we ordinary lyric tenors did not sing’.”
- Natalie, "younglemeshevist"
“Everything about [Sergei Lemeshev] was artistic....On the stage, until the end of his career, he was a youth, beloved and vulnerable. Even at seventy he still drove his admirers into ecstasies every time he sang Lensky at the Bolshoi.”
- Galina Vishnevskaya, GALINA, p.324