Ildar Abdrazakov: "Power Players: Russian Arias for Bass"
Kaunas State Choir and City State Orchestra, Orbelian. Transliterated texts and translations. Delos 3456
The Bashkir bass-baritone Ildar Abdrazakov has taken a route to deserved international prominence almost unparalleled among singers from the former U.S.S.R. Still in his thirties, he has made his reputation singing the Italian and French repertoire with a distinction encompassing stylistic and linguistic acumen allied to a strong stage presence. Before Borodin's Igor this season, Abdrazakov had offered the Met audiences only one Russian role — Dosifei in 2012's Khovanshchina.
This fine survey of Russian arias — recorded last May in Kaunas, Lithuania, under Constantine Orbelian's sure baton — may change the way we think about this valuable artist. Many of these pieces are associated with granitic Slavic basses such as Chaliapin, Reizen, Christoff and Ghiaurov. Abdrazakov's tone, though impressive, is more compact than that of these illustrious predecessors; he concentrates on meaningful phrasing and a well-bound legato.
The dozen arias appear in no particular order; pieces by the same composer, even from the same opera, are scattered throughout. (The perceived need for such grouping may be a permanent casualty of the downloading era.) Mikhail Glinka was by no means the first Russian opera composer, but the techniques, structures and devices he used in his works set the path for virtually everything that followed. Farlaf's Rondo from Ruslan and Lyudmila has roots in Mozart's and Rossini's basso buffo roles; Abdrazakov, a practiced Leporello and Mustafà, renders its patter at commendable speed, with a firmness the piece rarely gets these days. Ruslan's own scena assumes classic bel canto form — a mellow, sad cavatina followed by an up-tempo, almost rollicking cabaletta. Varlaam's song about the Battle of Kazan, from Boris Godunov, is almost too well sung; it's good not to hear the usual slurry distortions, but there's little sense, in this youthful-sounding rendition, of booziness, or of the sheer weight of complete moral failure that Chaliapin felt the part embodied.
Abdrazakov will likely tackle Boris himself, at least in a suitable venue. The Boris coronation scene he sings here — with the musical but rather restrained-sounding Lithuanian chorus taking Shuisky's lines — is a thoughtful down-payment. Throughout, Abdrazakov produces insolently easy high notes; the extreme low notes Tchaikovsky asks of Gremin and Iolanta's King René are sounded, but they may not be ready for theatrical exposure. Sadko's Viking Merchant and War and Peace's Kutuzov also seem "studio only" assignments, but it's bracing to hear these mighty arias sung so musically.
Prince Igor's pensive lament at being in captivity makes a nice souvenir of Abdrazakov's splendid performance this season. Unlike the Met's huge auditorium, the studio gives the singer no need to inflate his tone in the louder, agitated middle section. It might have been interesting, for contrast, to hear Abdrazakov tackle the arrogant aria of Igor's braggart, wastrel brother-in-law, Vladimir Galitsky. A highlight of this disc is the seductive, beautifully orchestrated aria "In the celestial ocean," from the Lermontov-based Demon,by Anton Rubinstein (1829–94), a composer somewhat marginalized by Russian musical nationalists in his century — and in ours. The part seems a natural fit for Abdrazakov. Sheer decibel-power may not be Abdrazakov's strongest suit, but any opera house staging the Russian works represented here would certainly want to count him among its players.
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