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Modest Mussorgsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich

Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich perform Russian songs

Galina Vishnevskaya and Mstislav Rostropovich perform songs by Mussorgksy, Prokofiev and Shostakovitch.
Composers Modest Mussorgsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich
Singer Galina Vishnevskaya
Pianist Mstislav Rostropovich
Genre Recital

Galina Vishnevskaya

 Galina Vishnevskaya was the prima donna assoluta of Soviet singers in the 1960’s and early 70’s.  This was based on an electrifying stage presence, a strong voice and great interpretative skills.  She was active internationally both on the operatic stage and the recital platform and worked closely with her husband Mstislav Rostropovich, not only a highly renowned cellist but an excellent pianist and conductor.  Both she and Rostropovich were caught up in the political turmoil of the Soviet Union in this period.

Galina Vishnevskaya was born in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) on October 25, 1926.  She had a turbulent early life, but music soon came to her rescue and her first engagement was in the chorus of a local operetta company.  The mind boggles, but later she would write: “That troupe became for me a genuine school – my only one”.  At this time she was singing as a mezzo-soprano, but she met the singing teacher Vera Garina, who took her in hand and extended her range to two and a half octaves.

At the age of 10 her mother gave her a gramophone recording of Tchaikovsky’s opera Yevgeni Onegin and she became possessed by the work.  Winning a Bolshoi Theatre competition in 1952, she joined the company and made a sensational debut in October 1953 in the part of Tatiana.  She recorded the opera in 1956 for the Soviet label Melodiya, with Lemeshev and Belov, conducted by Boris Khaikin.  It remains a classic interpretation of the role.  You can still hear the mezzo quality in her voice, which gives it extra depth and warmth, and her interpretation is psychologically complex, capturing not only Tatiana’s vulnerability in her love for Onegin but also her iron determination to attract the man and later to reject him.  Tatiana became one of Vishnevskaya’s iconic roles and she made her farewell to the operatic stage in the part at the Paris Opera in 1982.

Vishnevskaya got her name from her first husband, a sailor called Georgi Vishnevsky, but it was meeting Mstislav Rostropovich in 1955 that changed her life.  They had a whirlwind romance and he became her third husband.  Theirs was a partnership of two highly volatile personalities and the marriage was a turbulent one, but their work together in the theatre or in recital was never less than highly charged.

After her Bolshoi successes Vishnevskaya’s international reputation began to grow, with engagements in the Soviet zone, but her breakthrough came in 1961, when she made her debuts at the Met and at Covent Garden, both in the role of Aida.  That was the year she also first visited Aldeburgh.  Rostropovich had met Benjamin Britten the previous year and they immediately became deep friends as well as artistic collaborators.  She and her husband arrived unexpectedly and gave an impromptu recital.  Vishnevskaya later recalled: “In those days Soviet artists rarely travelled abroad, and I wanted in this one recital to show what I was capable of.  In the first half I sang arias from Norma, La forza del destino and Aida; in the second, songs by Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss and Prokofiev.  And finally Mussorgsky’s Songs of Dances of Death.  That was a kind of pudding, really!”  The effect on the audience was sensational and shortly afterwards the BBC took them into the studio and it is from this session that Music Preserved’s recording of the Mussorgsky cycle comes, hot off the press!  Vishnevskaya remained a frequent visitor to Aldeburgh in following years and returned in the mid-nineties to give a series of illuminating but tough masterclasses at the Britten-Pears School.

The Rostropoviches had a touch and go relationship with the Soviet authorities and Vishnevskaya was famously prevented from travelling to Britain for the premiere of the War Requiem, which Britten had written for her.  Their troubles mounted as they publicly supported prominent dissidents, most notably Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  In 1974 they went into exile and they were stripped of their Soviet citizenship.

Vishnevskaya returned to Russia in 1990 and was finally reconciled with the Bolshoi in 1992.  In 2002 she opened the Galina Vishnevskaya Centre for Opera Singing in Moscow, where she devoted much of her time and energies.  I visited her there in 2006, as I wanted to invite her back to the Red House in Aldeburgh.  It was like being received by royalty.  She was formidable, held herself very upright, but could not have been more gracious.  This was a woman one would not want to be on the wrong side of, but a woman with a great heart.

Galina Vishneyskaya died in Moscow in 2012.

Galina Vishevskaya wrote about giving song recitals of her native Russian song, in which she especially excelled: “Wanting to be understood by an audience that didn’t know Russian, I tried to paint musical pictures by emphasising the phrasing, using voice colour more boldly, and varying the shade and nuance”.  For an illustration of this statement one need go no further than the present recording of the Songs and Dances of Death from Music Preserved.  Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich together achieve an extraordinary level of intensity and picture-painting.  She colours the words and the music with huge intelligence, clarity and vocal control – you really do not need to understand the Russian to know what is going on in these hair-raising songs.  More tenderness is found in the Prokofiev and the further Mussorgsky songs, but a harsher, more acerbic tone returns for the Shostakovich songs, which he wrote for her.  But again, the detail and dexterity of the colouring are breath-taking.  The songs in this selection lie at the heart of Vishnevskaya’s repertoire and are a very vivid testimony to her strength and skill as a recitalist, always supported by the characterful and sensitive pianism of her husband.

 

Richard Jarman

 

Track 1:

Modest Mussorgsky (1839 – 1881)

Songs of Dances of Death

  1. Lullaby
  2. Serenade
  3. Trepak
  4. Field Marshall Death

Sergei Prokofiev

  1. Sunlight
  2. Thoughts of sunlight
  3. Greeting
  4. The grey-eyed king

Track 2:

Modest Mussorgsky (1839 – 1881)

  1. It scatters and breaks
  2. Where art thou, little star?
  3. Darling Savishna

Track 3:

Dmitri Shostakovitch (1906 – 1975)

Five Satirical Songs (1960)

 

 

The recordings all come from the Patrick Saul Collection in Music Preserved.

The Songs and Dances of Death and the Prokofiev songs were recorded by the BBC in London in July 1961.

  • Galina Vishnevskaya
    Soprano
  • Mstislav Rostropovich
    Piano

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