STRAVINSKY: Le Rossignol. Pribaoutki (Chansons plaisantes).* Deux Poèmes de Paul Verlaine+ / Mojca Erdmann, soprano (Nightingale); Evgeny Akimov, tenor (Fisherman); Marina Pridenskaya, contralto (Cook); Vladimir Vaneev, bass (Emperor); Tuomas Pursio, bass (Chamberlain); Fyodor Kuznetsov, bass (Bonze); Mayram Sokolova, contralto (Death); *Katrin Wundsam, mezzo-soprano; +Hans Christoph Begemann, baritone; WDR Rundfunkchor & Sinfonieorchester Köln; Jukka-Pekka Saraste, conductor / Orfeo C 919 171A
Stravinsky’s early opera has received many recordings over the years, due largely to its being one of his most attractive and accessible works, but it has seldom been as well cast as on Stravinsky’s old stereo recording from 1960 or ’61, with the vastly underrated tenor Loren Driscoll as the Fisherman, Herbert Beattie as the Bonze, Donald Gramm as the Emperor and the wonderful Reri Grist as the Nightingale. But as we know, Stravinsky was really just an OK conductor—certainly not bad, but unless someone else helped him out with the rehearsals of his works he often did not get as much out of his own music as others. Thus his recordings are largely valuable for his view of the music at any given time, and this often changed and slowed down as he got older.
I still consider Stravinsky’s Rossignol to be the reference recording, however, due to the superlative cast. On this new version, we have two singers who rather struggle vocally: tenor Evgeny Akimov as the Fisherman, whose voice sounds tight and a bit strained throughout, and contralto Marina Pridenskaya as the Cook, whose voice has a terrible flutter. Happily, however, the Cook’s role is a small one, and she is soon gone, hopefully to fall into a vat of cooked beets in the kitchen. This leaves only Akimov as the singer who disconcerts one every time he opens his mouth.
On the plus side, however, we have an absolutely astounding soprano, Mojca Erdmann, as the Nightingale. This role is so technically difficult (thought not as showy as many a bel canto role that’s half as hard) that it is often assigned to the highest and often most brittle-sounding of “coloratura” sopranos, but Erdmann surprises one with a voice of considerable warmth, particularly in the mid-range, and she has both musicianship and technique to spare. In some respects she reminded me of Edda Moser, although her voice is not quite as dark. The other singers are all excellent, especially dark-voiced contralto Mayram Sokolova as Death and bass Vladimir Vaneev, who sang a splendid Boris Godunov many years ago on the Valery Gergiev recording of the complete opera, as the Emperor.
But as you may suspect, I am saving the best for last. Saraste has such a firm grasp of this score that it almost unreels itself like a spool of thread. By this I mean that nothing in the score, which still strikes the ear as a bit quirky despite the early date of the opera, sounds disjointed or out of sorts, and in fact Saraste brings out numerous details in the orchestration that Stravinsky simply did not do. A perfect example is the “Cortège solonnel” in the third act, where Saraste creates a wonderful atmosphere simply by focusing on the soft playing of the orchestra without sacrificing clarity. I cannot say enough of his conducting; it is absolutely splendid.
Also splendid is mezzo Katrin Wundsam’s performance of the little-played Pribaoutki. I have the performance that the late Cathy Berberian did with Stravinsky, and of course anything Berberian sang had a 3-D quality about it, but Wundsam has a richer, more powerful voice and does a fine job on it. Less impressive is baritone Hans Christoph Bergmann’s somewhat wan tone and slow wobble in the 2 Poems of Paul Verlaine, although his interpretation is sensitively shaded. In this instance, the old Stravinsky recording is far superior, featuring the outstanding voice of Donald Gramm.
But still, this is a pleasant surprise for Stravinsky buffs and particularly those of us who like Le Rossignol. The sound quality is both lucid and warm, a rare and welcome combination.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley
Follow me on Twitter! @Artmusiclounge