Thursday, 13 December 2012

Memories of Galina Vishnevskaya

I only heard Galina Vishnevskaya (1926 - 2012) live twice, but hers was a voice once heard never forgotten. Not just a voice, but artistry as well. The first time was in Scotland in 1976 in a new production of Verdi's Macbeth conducted by Alexander Gibson (you can hear her in the sleepwalking scene on YouTube). She was then 50. The production (directed by David Pountney) opened at the Edinburgh Festival, with Norman Bailey as Macbeth. I remember it as being rather gripping, with Vishnevskaya a blood-curdling Lady. There was a dangerous, dark edge to her voice and a very Slavic timbre to her diction. She sang the sleep-walking scene on a balcony, holding her hands over it so that they were spot-lit, a striking image, which was accompanied by some striking singing. She could undoubtedly encompass everything, technically, that the role needed but there was always a sort of undercurrent of instability. This worked well in Lady Macbeth, but I did wonder about other roles.


I never did hear Vishnevskaya live on the stage again, but in the early 1980's I was singing with the London Philharmonic Chorus and Rostropovich conducted a performance of Britten's War Requiem at the Royal Festival Hall, with Vishnevskaya singing the soprano role written for her. She would now be nearly 60. Rostropovich was, himself, a revelation; seemingly spending much of the chorus rehearsals telling funny stories about his early European tours as a Soviet citizen. But he got a strong performance, and had a very fine ear for the detail (including taking the brass section to task in a full rehearsal, but getting stunning results).

At the first ensemble rehearsal, at Henry Wood Hall, Vishnevskaya was present in the hall as the chorus assembled and she calmly sat down at the piano, started picking out notes and warming up, doing scales quietly in a room full of people. There was a dangerous, curdled quality to her voice and she sang with dark, Slavic vowels that sounded like nothing you would ever hear from an Italianate soprano. Her performance was everything you could imagine, she still had the edge and commanding quality which the role requires.

Ever since I have found many, softer grained sopranos rather disappointing in the role, lacking that special something which Vishnevskaya brought to it. And, of course, the role had been written for her 20 years previously.

Fasincating that she should be just the same age as Joan Sutherland, but the two should have careers which took them in such different trajectories. Not just in terms of roles, but in terms of the way their voices developed during their lifetimes.

Though Vishnevskaya sang Tatyana as her farewell to the operatic stage (in 1982, at the Paris Opera), I doubt that I would have ever stood a chance of seeing her Tatyana in her glory days in Soviet Russia. But the role that I really miss not having seen her perform was Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Both she and her husband were friends of the composers and they made a fine recording of the work.

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