Cui: A Feast in Time of Plague; Three Scherzos, Op. 82; Les deux ménétriers; Fair Spring; Budrys and His Sons

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COMPOSERS: Cui
LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: A Feast in Time of Plague; Three Scherzos, Op. 82; Les deux ménétriers; Fair Spring; Budrys and His Sons
PERFORMER: Tatiana Sharova, Ludmila Kuznetsova, Alexei Martinov, Andrei Baturkin, Dmitri Stepanovich; Russian State SO/Valery Polyansky
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 10201
Three of the four ‘little tragedies’ by Russia’s Shakespeare, Alexander Pushkin, have fared well in their operatic settings: Dargomïzhsky’s The Stone Guest blazed a trail for faithful musical treatment of a Russian play-text, and Rimsky-Korsakov took another step forward with Mozart and Salieri, while Rachmaninov made a now-famous vehicle for Chaliapin out of The Miserly Knight. A Feast in Time of Plague, in which Pushkin adapted a scene from a play by the Scottish writer John Wilson, certainly drew the short straw, though this sketchy fragment hardly deserves better than the matter-of-fact half-hour opera by the little finger of Russia’s ‘mighty handful’, César Cui. Although the vocal lines are squarely reliant on the rhythms of Pushkin’s verses, at least Cui makes decent musical distinction between the ladies at table, Chairman Walsingham who drowns his losses in desperate toasting and the Priest who rails at his sacrilege. In Polyansky’s decent, brisk reading, artificially lit for maximum emphasis, the excellent men are better than the underpowered women, who also make rather feeble work of their bland ballads; it’s left to baritone Andrei Baturkin, a stalwart Chairman, to save the rest of the programme with a good-humoured delivery of Budrys and His Sons. The three scherzos presented as a collective intermezzo between the vocal dishes knock further nails in the coffin of Cui as mediocrity personified; the underinflected conducting and lazy orchestral playing do nothing to persuade us otherwise. David Nice

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