REVIEW: There are a number of Chaliapin compilations on disc. Pearl brought out a single disc which, in addition to the Russian items at which he excelled, included pieces by Massenet, Rossini and Mozart. These are performances distinctly for admirers only and the transfers on the Pearl set leave something to be desired. The best compilation to have been issued recently is the EMI single CD of Russian arias in excellent transfers. Like the Pearl set, this new two disc Naxos set presents a mixture of Russian and non-Russian items in an attempt to give a fuller portrait of the singer. The Naxos disc includes more from Borodin's 'Prince Igor' than EMI, but less from Glinka's 'Ruslan and Ludmilla' and entirely omits Dargomizhsky. Naxos expand the Rachmaninov and Rubinstein coverage, adding songs beyond the items from 'Aleko' and 'The Demon'. They also include a generous selection from the Italian and French operatic repertoire.
As with the Pearl disc, these non-Russian items are interesting in giving a more fully rounded portrait of Chaliapin the artist. But for the average listener, they are probably only of marginal interest. The acoustic disc starts with the catalogue aria from 'Don Giovanni'. Listening to this and the other Italian items, one could be forgiven for thinking that one was listening to an eccentric, albeit one with a fine voice. With its funny voices and strange vocal tics the Mozart aria is a little off-putting. The funny voices do not re-cur but the odd vocal habits do. One cannot expect items recorded 80 years ago to be stylistically compatible with today's ideas, but Chaliapin's Bellini, Donizetti and Meyerbeer are really only of academic interest. By the time we reach Verdi, the singer seems to be more in tune with his material. Fine though the Verdi arias sound, they are still rather generalised.
Once we reach the Russian tracks, we are on far securer ground. I did wonder whether Chaliapin was more comfortable singing in his native language. The aria from 'Lakme', sung in translation, has far fewer of his odd vocal mannerisms than the other French and Italian items on the acoustic disc. It is good to have the two items from Rubinstein's 'The Demon', but it is only with the arias from 'Prince Igor' that Chaliapin really grabs the listener in the way that we have come to expect. If you can manage to ignore the terrible piano sound, the Russian songs are lovely. It is good to hear Chaliapin exercising the subtle art of song singing besides the far grander operatic gestures, though his vocal manner remains quite stylised. A little surprise was the Glazounov 'Chanson Bachique' which was delivered in idiomatic French. The acoustic disc finishes with a haunting folksong, which Chaliapin does magically … unaccompanied.
The second disc, of electrical recordings, has the same virtues and failings as the previous disc, except that the orchestras sound a lot better. The Rossini calumny aria is a terrific tour de force, despite Chaliapin's eccentric vocalism. In the aria from Sonnambula he just does not have the sense of line that the aria requires. This lack of a bel canto line is severely felt in the Gounod and Massenet items (on the Massenet he even sings both Don Quichotte and Sancho Panza). But at least here one gets a sense of what a dramatic stage character Chaliapin must have been. If he can draw such a vivid character just in these rather dim recordings, then how much more powerful his stage performances must have been. And that is the advantage of these recordings. No matter how we might shake our heads at some of Chaliapin's style of singing, these discs give us some little idea of the terrific stage presence of the man. This applies also to the two items from Boito's 'Mefistofile'. Chaliapin's performance, whistle and all, manages to come through what is rather a recording that is dim indeed.
Moving to the Russian items and we are again on home territory. We no longer need to excuse Chaliapin's vocal habits. The Glinka item is terrific as he delivers the stupendous amount of text at rapid speed. The sombre aria from Rimsky-Korsakov's 'Sadko', sonorously delivered by Chaliapin, makes one regret that we don't hear more of these operas in the West. But the highlights are surely the famous excerpts from 'Boris Godounov'. These cannot be praised too highly and just make you regret that we can't have more.
The second disc concludes with a group of folksongs and another recording of 'The Song of the Flea'. Two of the folksongs have the dubious benefit of accompaniment by an orchestra of balalaikas. But the final two items, 'The Song of The Flea' and 'The Song of the Volga Boatmen' are simply accompanied by piano. Recorded 1936, in Tokyo, these are amongst the last things that Chaliapin set down, a full 34 years after the first recording in this set (Korganov's 'Elegy' recorded in 1902). His voice is superbly preserved and for all his eccentricities these two tracks are a poignant reminder of what a great artist Chaliapin was.
If you have the EMI disc then you could still consider getting these, at super budget price, if Chaliapin's non-Russian repertoire is of interest. The other songs and arias enable us to place his superb performances of Russian repertoire in proper perspective. If you don't have the EMI disc, then do consider this set. Ward Marston has done a wonderful job on these old acoustic and electrical recordings. Evidently the recording process itself (particularly in the acoustic era) was far kinder to Chaliapin's voice than to some other singers. Chaliapin's voice is a very distinctive one and in these transfers the singer seems to leap out of the speakers at us.