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Elena Obraztsova: Russian Songs and Romances

CD Button The USSR Television and Radio Russian Folk Orchestra, Nekrasov. No texts. Melodiya 10 02332

Recordings Obraztsova Cover 1215

IT'S HARD TO BELIEVE that Elena Obraztsova—such a life force, onstage and off—is gone, but the mezzo and administrator died at 75 this January. Joining the Bolshoi Theater as Mussorgsky’s Marina in 1963, she quickly achieved star status thanks to her remarkable instrument and fresh dramatic energy. She became part of the company—and nation’s—cultural capital, frequently touring abroad, including on the Bolshoi tours to New York. Her successes then led to a reportedly stunning Met debut, as Amneris in 1976, and legendary performances of Dalila.

This Melodiya CD’s short program—less than forty-three minutes, covering fourteen songs, only two longer than four minutes—was recorded in 1981, at more or less the peak of Obraztsova’s international popularity—though it might be argued that her vocalism was at its absolute best in the mid 1970s. The programming—of “Russian romances,” broadly defined—reflected a patriotic concert the mezzo had given the previous (highly contentious) Olympic year, with the same style-imbued orchestra and conductor. These romansy are not the art songs of Dargomyzhsky and Rachmaninov—which are also termed that—but various kinds of semiclassical, pseudofolk, and café-chantant standard songs that are sometimes associated with estrada, Russia’s (often deafeningly amplified) answer to cabaret. 

A few of them set verses by Russian poets, including Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov and Afanasy Fet; some of the texts are of lower or unknown origin. Many of these songs are familiar to Russians, and surely, in cases like the wonderfully lugubrious earworm “Misty Morning” (“Utro tumannoe”), to many others, from school, films and choral adaptations. Some of the older ones won prized recordings by the great Nadezhda Oboukhova (1886–1961), one of the most widely beloved classical Russian vocalists of the twentieth century.

Obraztsova differed from the intense but mercurially subtle Obukhova; by 1981, this entertaining but decidedly unsubtle traversal of the material documents her churning vibrato and almost baritonal chest tones. That Obraztsova could access a broad, barrelhouse style of vocalism was evident in such late career character roles as Prokofiev’s Babulenka (The Gambler) and Mme. Akhrosimova (War and Peace), both of which she brought to the Met stage. The seeds of it can be heard here, though in a number like “The old husband” (“Staryj muzh”) she does bring some dynamic contrast to her work alongside the full-out gypsy flair and crowd-wowing decibels. My personal taste runs towards a less take-no-prisoners approach, such as the one Dmitri Hvorostovsky has adopted on his recordings of semiclassical and folkish songs. But Obraztsova’s many fans will love having this album available. —David Shengold

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