Galina Vishnevskaya (1926-2012)

The original Gramophone article from February 1963The original Gramophone article from February 1963

It was two days after New Year and slush was competing with snow in the streets. Galina Vishnevskaya moved her London hotel chair nearer a radiator and uttered one of the few English phrases which she has evidently learned and practised: 'Very cold'. She had come from Moscow exclusively to sing in Britten's War Requiem – both in the concert performance, which amazingly sold out the Albert Hall, and in the recording which was being made by Decca. 

At the Albert Hall, with David Willcocks and Britten himself respectively conducting the main force and the chamber orchestra, Vishnevskaya's voice rang out with superb power and expression. The particularly moving contrast, in the Dies Irae, between her voice and that of Peter Pears, suggested that the recording with these participants should be very exciting in sheer sound, the high quality of the music apart. The baritone was Tom Krause (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the recording). The soprano role is exclusively in Latin – perhaps fortunately, for Vishnevskaya has never sung English in her life.

Vishnevskaya missed singing in the first performance of this work (at the Coventry Cathedral Festival last year) and so had to disappoint the composer; and she has just missed another 'first' as well. Shostakovich has been revising his formerly banned opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk; and I guessed, after hearing Vishnevskaya sing two striking excerpts from it at the Edinburgh Festival, that Shostakovich would wish to cast her in the leading role. But the revised version of the opera has just been given its premiere in Moscow – not at the Bolshoi, to whose company Vishnevskaya belongs, but at the Stanislavsky/Nemirovich-Danchenko Theatre. Nonetheless, Vishnevskaya told me she is determined to sing in the opera some time. 

Vishnevskaya is not, like the admirable pianists and string players of the younger Russian generation, the product of the rigorous training of Soviet musical academies. Brought up in war-torn, blockaded Leningrad (having lost both her parents) she went to no musical academy and began her career with an operetta troupe. Then she made a living singing light classics in variety concerts while studying with a distinguished vocal teacher, Vera Garina. (Mme Garina has since died; Vishnevskaya goes to no other coach.) Her reward was when an auditioning panel from the Bolshoi visited Leningrad in 1952. She was taken into the company and in 1953 came her first star part, Tatyana in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin

The roles she has since assumed show the breadth of her style. I give only a selection: Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro, Leonora in Fidelio, Natasha in Prokofiev's War and Peace, Alice in Verdi's Falstaff (her latest role), and Marguerite in Faust. Shortly she will sing Violetta in La traviata and (in concert) the one-woman role in Poulenc's La Voix Humaine. Like me, she has a love for Faust and seemed puzzled when I told her how it has slumped in opera-goers' favour in the West generally. She has sung Elisabeth in a Moscow concert performance of Tannhäuser (or 'Tanngäuser' as he is called in Russian, just as Hamlet is Gamlet); and the celebrated 'Dich, teure Halle', in Russian, will be one of the items of her forthcoming Soviet disc of operatic arias with the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra. 

I ventured to tell Vishnevskaya that I thought she was not heard at her best on gramophone records – and she agreed. She dislikes recording and insists that recorded performances are not 'living' ones, in contrast with a theatrical performance however bad! Voice apart, one misses on records the vivid gestures which Vishnevskaya uses even on the concert platform. Such gestures are in excess of what our Western singers usually give us, but Vishnevskaya tells me the gesturing is not typically a Russian 'recital manner' but simply her own 'and why not?' 

At both Aldeburgh and Edinburgh last year she appeared with her husband, Mstislav Rostropovich, as the accompanist. As if it were not enough for him to be so accomplished as both pianist and cellist (and he is also a composer) he has just recently made his debut as a conductor – sharing a concert with his wife and with Shostakovich, who also conducted part of the programme. I hinted to Vishnevskaya that there are many conductors in the world but, as a cellist, only one Rostropovich. She smiled assent: 'That's what I've told him myself!'

Rostropovich's conducting debut took place in the Russian provincial city of Gorky, but he hopes to repeat this particular programme (with his wife and Shostakovich) in Moscow – and even to conduct an orchestra for a concert by his wife in London, if someone asks him! What musical surprises will eventually come from the children of these two great artists I cannot guess, but I am assured that Olga, now nearly seven, was singing Tatyana's 'Letter Song' correctly when she was four. 

Arthur Jacobs

© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2014