Tchaikovsky Queen of Spades
There are major problems with all three current sets of Tchaikovsky's most melodramatic opera. If melodrama were all, the mid-1970s Bolshoi version with Ermler would be the one to have, but the cavernous recording, raw orchestral playing and, especially, the continuously loud singing are hard to live with. Tchakarov and his largely Bulgarian forces reveal far more subtlety, but at the expense of dramatic immediacy and with a dry, uninvolving recording quality. Ozawa's set is blessed with a distinguished Tomsky from Sergei Leiferkus, who however, also shows up the inadequacy, in some cases I would say virtual amateurishness, of the rest of the cast.
Somewhere in between the extremes of visceral impact and the arm's-length approach comes this new Kirov version, and in many ways the medium it strikes is a happy one. Valery Gergiev is, of course, one of the outstanding Tchaikovskians of the day—I write this with his Covent Garden Onegin fresh in my mind. Here again he persuades a thoroughly Western-sounding Kirov Theatre Orchestra to what is surely the most refined account of the score yet recorded, and one that is never lacking energy or full-blooded attack. His is not so much a compromise approach as one which stresses fatalism and underlying sadness. The recording was made in the Kirov Theatre itself, and there is admittedly some constriction to the orchestral sound-picture. But for many I suspect the atmosphere of a real stage-venue will be a plus, and the all-important balance between voices and orchestra is just right.
If my spine still fails to tingle as I feel it should that is mainly a reflection of the respectable but unexciting singing. The bass and baritone soloists are rather samey in timbre, none of them having the distinction of a Leiferkus; Gegam Grigorian brings the same impressive all-purpose ardour to Herman as he did to his Lensky at Covent Garden, but he is still hammy in his primo tenore mannerisms—typical that he disregards the score and joins Lisa on an audience-massaging top B at the end of Act 1. Of the women Arkhipova is well cast as the decaying Countess, but Maria Gulegina, for all that she commands some microphone-splitting top notes, is too uniformly tremulous and matronly in tone for Lisa while Olga Borodina is a pleasant but rather unvaried Pauline.
As I have suggested, it would be folly to expect greater thrills from any of the three rival sets, and in many ways Gergiev's conducting elevates this new one above them all. But I join AB in singling out the old Melik-Pashayev/Melodiya (4/61—nla) as the classic recorded version—above all, but not exclusively, for the plangent Herman of Georgi Nelepp. At a time when the ex-Soviet archives are being so greedily plundered, is it not possible for someone to put this genuine treasure somewhere near the top of the list?'