V1096. SERGEI LEMESHEV: Arias from L’Africaine, Les Pęcheurs de Perles, Werther, Mignon, La Gioconda, Rigoletto, Marta, Dobrinya Nikitich, Iolanta, Snegoroutchka, Dubrovsky, May Night, Eugen Onégin & Rusalka (Dargomyzhsky). (Russia) Aquarius AQVR 281, recorded 1937-40. - 4607123630396
“The Soviet Union had a remarkable crop of tenors during the 1940s, 50s, and into the 60s. Leaving aside artists who operated outside Russia and the Ukraine, and gifted performers such as Yelnikov who usually took secondary roles, there were still the likes of Orfenov, Kromchenko, Khanaev, Jadan, Ognovoi, Makhov, Nelepp, Alexandrovitch, Vinogradov, Ivanovsky, and Maslennikov: each an artist of international quality. Two I haven't mentioned, Kozlovsky and Lemeshev, led them all in popularity and engagements. Both began their careers in the 1920s, and they joined the Bolshoi within six years of one another - Kozlovsky in 1926, Lemeshev in 1931. They quickly became established as favorites right into the 1950s, each with his own wildly devoted female following, referred to respectively as ‘kozlovityanki’ and ‘lemeshistki’.
Of the two, Kozlovsky excelled at in-depth interpretation and sheer size of voice, while Lemeshev had the more attractive timbre. Each was exceedingly well recorded - too well recorded, some of their competitors would (and did, quietly) say, since the Soviet official music publisher, Melodiya, tended to use the pair a great deal. Fortunately for us, many of these recordings still exist in reasonably good condition. Aquarius is currently engaged in releasing those of Lemeshev. Literally dozens of discs devoted to his art have appeared, including commercial, live, and radio performances.
The particular collection under review, entitled ARIAS FROM OPERAS, focuses on the years 1937-1940. Some fanciers of the tenor consider it his best period, shortly before one of his lungs was collapsed due to tuberculosis and pleurisy. Arguably many of his post-war recordings, however, were just as fine: his Rodolfo in a 1954 LA BOHČME [OP1824] (with the great Pavel Lisitisian as Marcello), FRA DIAVOLO [OP3175] of 1955, Levko in the 1951 recording of Rimsky-Korsakov's delightful MAY NIGHT [OP3154]. Be that as it may, if we take as our proposition that there can never be too much Lemeshev, there are many delights to be had on this disc.
For example, his version of Lenski's aria from EUGEN ONÉGIN as heard here is splendid. In Kozlovsky's mature treatment, the inner poet takes the lead, making art out of his own suffering: a fascinating account . Lemeshev, by contrast, emphasizes the gentle but ardent lover, who knows he is about to be separated forever from his best friend. The repeated opening words are spun out slowly, the voice swelling slightly between the paired syllables of ‘Kuda, kuda’. Subsequent phrases are taken flexibly, almost conversationally, climaxing on a lengthy, melting diminuendo in ‘zlatiye dni’ before the main aria begins. ‘Zabudet’ gets treated to another diminuendo leading this time to a very delicate pianisimo, and then without a breath through to a slight swell on ‘mir menya’. If all this (and much of the same) sounds artificial, it isn't until it's analyzed; for as Lemeshev carefully sculpts each phrase, the effect is one of a natural progression in which all his effects are part of a continuum of character. The final blaze of passion, invoking Olga, is incandescent, but again, it doesn't stand out. It completes a portrait....
As…you might guess from my comments, [his records] are a joy. Warts and all, these selections afford us 21 chances to hear one of the greatest tenors of the last century, in music he knew well and performed to perfection. With Preiser's album currently available only as a digital download, Aquarius' multitude of releases are the best way to hear Lemeshev in all his glory - and this is as good a place as any to start. Strongly recommended, and available from Norbeck, Peters & Ford (www.norpete.com).”
- Barry Brenesal, FANFARE
“The Russian label Aquarius, which has been doing magnificent restoration work on the old Melodiya catalogue (available at Norbeck, Peters & Ford, online), just made available five releases built around one of the twentieth century’s greatest tenors, Sergei Lemeshev (1902-1977). It is difficult to imagine the pleasures given to Moscow operagoers in the Stalin years (except, of course, for having to live in the Stalin years) and immediately afterward. The two ‘house’ tenors at the Bolshoi were Lemeshev and his contemporary Ivan Kozlovsky (1900-1993), and moreover the house baritone was the great Pavel Lisitsian (1911-2004). The differences between Lemeshev and Kozlovsky were significant, although both were exquisite lyric tenors who would have been stars in any of the world’s leading opera houses. Kozlovsky’s voice was a bit more tightly focused (some find it thin); he also was more of a risk-taker. He sang, indeed, with a freedom virtually unmatched in his era - far more typical of what we find in the recordings of Fernando de Lucia from the beginning of the century. But do not take this to mean that Lemeshev was boring or unimaginative. His voice had a more ‘juice’ in the sound, more natural warmth. He also had a more prominent vibrato (though it is never obtrusive). If you forced me to find a single adjective to describe his singing, it would probably be ‘poetic’. That is the word John Steane settled on in THE GRAND TRADITION, though at the time that book was written, Western collectors did not have access to much of Lemeshev’s (nor Kozlovsky’s) work. Kozlovsky was surely the more theatrical, dramatically intense singer. Lemeshev’s art, while not ignoring the dramatic, was more strongly focused on the vocal. This cornucopia of Lemeshev releases helps to balance a situation in the CD format that had favored Kozlovsky.
Going through all of these recordings is both a joy and perhaps a lesson in singing and artistry. Just when you think you have Lemeshev figured out (he’s poetic, intimate even, but probably not exciting), he lets loose with an emotional outburst that rivals those of dramatic Italian tenors. There is a huge range of repertoire here - both songs and operatic scenes – and Lemeshev sounds comfortable in all of it. His use of the voix mixte, blending the middle and upper registers in a way that minimizes the differences between them, allows him to produce a remarkably even and flowing legato. As I listened, I kept being surprised by this turn of phrase, that imaginative bit of dynamic shading, this dramatic emphasis, that particularly beautiful tone. The pleasures just kept coming.
Everywhere on these discs Lemeshev’s voice announces itself immediately as a voice of importance, one that demands your attention. You will find yourself holding your breath in awe at many moments of great beauty. The monaural transfers are overall very fine; the conductors are often impressive, while the orchestral playing is at worst adequate. The piano accompaniments are generally adequate, too, although there are a few exceptions in the positive direction. This group of releases adds immeasurably to our knowledge of the great tradition of Russian operatic singing in the first half of the twentieth century and illuminates one of the world’s finest tenors.”
- Henry Fogel, FANFARE
“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