CUI: A Feast in Time of Plague
RACHMANINOV: The Miserly Knight

César Cui: A Feast in Time of Plague; Three Scherzos, Op. 82; Les Deux Ménétriers, Op. 42; Fair Spring (Echoes of War, Op. 66 No. 4); Budrys and His Sons, Op. 98.
Andrei Baturkin (baritone), Alexei Martinov (tenor), Dmitri Stepanovich (bass), Ludmila Kuznetsova (mezzo-soprano), Tatiana Sharova (soprano), Russian State Symphony Orchestra, Valeri Polyansky
Chandos CHAN 10201

Sergey Rachmaninov: The Miserly Knight, Op. 24.
Mikhail Guzhov (bass), Vsevolod Grivnov (tenor), Andrei Baturkin (baritone), Borislav Molchanov (tenor), Vitaly Efanov (bass), Russian State Symphony Orchestra, Valeri Polyansky
Chandos CHAN 10264

These new Chandos recordings present Valeri Polyansky and the Russian State Symphony Orchestra in two little-known Russian operas of the early twentieth century, Sergei Rachmaninov’s The Miserly Knight (1905), and César Cui’s A Feast in Time of Plague (1900), the latter recorded for the first time. Each work is a setting of one of Alexander Pushkin’s Little Tragedies (1830), a series of four short plays in blank verse that elaborate on popular literary topics: “Don Juan, or The Stone Guest,” “The Miserly Knight,” “Mozart and Salieri,” and “A Feast in Time of Plague.” Sharply penetrating psychological portraits of people consumed by their obsessions – passion, greed, jealousy, and fear – Pushkin’s “dramatic scenes” have enjoyed a near cult status among the classics of Russian literature over the past 175 years. So has the first attempt to set one of them to music – a radical 1869 word-for-word setting of The Stone Guest by Alexander Dargomyzhsky (1813-69). Cast almost entirely as a continuous arioso, the work was proclaimed a revolution in operatic style by the Russian Five whose unbridled enthusiasm contributed to its enduring reputation.
The example of The Stone Guest inspired other Russian composers to set the remaining Little Tragedies in a similarly continuous declamatory style. Rimsky-Korsakov chose Mozart and Salieri, a retelling of an old legend that presents both a brilliant portrait of the power of jealousy, and a thoughtful meditation on the nature of genius. The remaining two Tragedies were claimed by the aging César Cui (1835-1918) and his younger colleague Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943).
Known primarily for his Schumannesque art songs and piano miniatures, and for his fiery press critiques, Cui was in fact one of the most prolific opera composers among the Russian Five. Overshadowed by Musorgsky, Borodin, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s scores, few of his fifteen works in the genre achieved success in his lifetime, and none have remained in the repertoire. Recordings are a rarity; a rediscovery of Cui’s operatic legacy, therefore, is long overdue. The choice of a Pushkin “little tragedy” as a source was a natural one for Cui. A Dargomyzhsky acolyte, he was chosen by that composer to complete The Stone Guest left unfinished at his death, and since then took every opportunity to proclaim the work’s merits in print.
Following his mentor’s example, Cui created a word-for-word setting of A Feast in Time of Plague, without an intervening libretto. The story, adapted by Pushkin from an 1816 dramatic poem by John Wilson (1785-1854), is set in a Renaissance city ravaged by the plague. A group of disparate characters, disregarding the loss of one of their friends and stern admonitions from the local priest, attempt to overcome their fear of death by feasting in its honor. Most of the 31-minute one-act work is cast in continuous “melodic recitative” – a term coined by Cui to describe Dargomyzhsky’s approach to text setting. Exceptions (that also have a precedent in The Stone Guest) are two set numbers prescribed in Pushkin’s original play: a gentle ballad sung by a prostitute, Mary, who describes the devastation caused by the plague in her native village in Scotland, and “Hymn in Honor of the Plague,” defiantly performed by the group’s tortured “chairman,” Walsingham. Both numbers predate the opera by about a decade: Cui borrowed their material from two of his earlier art songs. The musical style of the opera is eclectic: Dargomyzhskian recitative alternates on the one hand with lyrical melodies in a Tchaikovskian vein, and on the other with impressionistic passages reminiscent of Rachmaninov’s writing. The quality of the music is equally uneven: some sections are forgettable, while others are well worth repeated hearing. Polyansky’s recording is of good quality; Andrei Baturkin as Walsingham and Ludmila Kuznetsova as Mary are particularly attractive. The recording also features a selection of Cui’s art songs, and his Three Scherzos for orchestra. Overall, this new release will make a worthy addition to any Russian music collection.
Sergei Rachmaninov, known to us today primarily for his piano and orchestral scores, started his compositional career with a one-act opera Aleko (1892), which received Tchaikovsky’s blessing and premiered as a double bill with the older master’s Iolanta. Two more one-act operas would follow: The Miserly Knight and Francesca da Rimini; premiered together as a double bill in 1906, under the composer’s baton. The plot of The Miserly Knight, adapted by Pushkin from a tragicomedy The Covetous Knight by an English poet William Shenstone (1714-63), is set in a medieval castle whose owner, the Baron, is consumed by greed that ruins his son Albert and ultimately leads to his own demise. Unlike that of Cui, Rachmaninov’s inspiration for setting Pushkin’s “little tragedy” did not come from The Stone Guest, but rather from the second work in this unusual operatic “cycle,” Mozart and Salieri. Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera premiered in December 1898 at the Moscow Private Opera, with the company’s star, Feodor Chaliapin as Salieri. A year earlier, Rachmaninov had been engaged as a conductor and pianist at that company; there he befriended Chaliapin, and helped the singer prepare the part of Salieri. The dramatic power of Chaliapin’s presentation was foremost in the composer’s mind while creating the role of the old Baron in The Miserly Knight; this is especially clear in his gripping monologue in Scene 2 of the opera in which the Baron admires the treasures in his cellar. Interestingly, Chaliapin refused to sing the premiere of Rachmaninov’s opera, although he would later perform the Baron’s monologue in concert on numerous occasions. The singer’s initial reaction elucidates Rachmaninov’s approach to text setting that differed substantially from that of his three predecessors. Dargomyzhsky, Cui, and (to a lesser extent) Rimsky-Korsakov had all placed the primary emphasis on the direct setting of Pushkin’s verses in vocal declamation, while keeping instrumental accompaniment simple and subservient to the voice. Rachmaninov, for his part, created essentially a sweeping symphonic tableau. Despite the undeniable power of his naturalistic text declamation, the chief musical interest of the opera remains in the continuously developing orchestral fabric. As such, The Miserly Knight represents one of the very few Russian operas in the tradition of Wagner’s Ring, as well as Rachmaninov’s finest achievement in the operatic genre.
As for Polyansky’s recording, Mikhail Guzhov demonstrates an enviable mastery of the Baron’s fiendishly difficult part; Vsevolod Grivnov as Albert, and Andrei Baturkin as the Duke do well in their supporting roles. The orchestra, however, does not always rise to the challenges of Rachmaninov’s virtuoso score, which detracts somewhat from the pleasure of listening to this forgotten masterpiece. In summary, Rachmaninov’s The Miserly Knight is a must for any operatic collection, but the reader might perhaps investigate the 2004 Deutsche Grammophon recording of this work, conducted by Neeme Järvi.
Olga Haldey
University of Missouri at Columbia