Record Guide: Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame

Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame, or The Queen of Spades, is a story of love, jealousy and money, in which the game of cards becomes an obsession. The work is particularly impressive for its sheer scale, skilfully shifting from grand, representative choral and ensemble opera to psychological scenes of chamber drama. The glamour of a sophisticated elite meets the misery of the outlaw working class. Pushkin’s short novella became the starting point for Pyotr and Modest Tchaikovsky’s musical-dramatic psychogram of the two main characters, Herman and Liza, united by their fatalistic hopelessness and their failed quest for freedom.

Solid recordings

Three studio recordings that are definitely worth listening to are those by Kresimir Baranovich from 1955 (Decca Eloquence), Mstislav Rostropovich from 1976 (Deutsche Grammophon) and Emil Tchakarov from 1989 (Sony). All are generally good, but unfortunately none of them has an interesting cast in my opinion. I see the Decca recording more as a historical document. I listen to the DG recording mainly for Rostropovich’s fiery interpretation and the Countess of Regina Resnik. The Sony recording is particularly worth listening to for Stefka Evstatieva, who sings a fabulous Liza with warmth and sentimentality. There is also Vladimir Fedoseyev’s live recording from 1990 (Melodiya), which certainly has its merits, but like the other three lacks a whole interesting cast, with the exception of a young Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who sings a beautiful Prince Yeletsky, and Grigory Gritsyuk, who makes a good Count Tomsky.

 

The vintage choice

Samui Samosud’s 1937 recording from the Bolshoi Theatre is the first of the opera and, frankly, the artistic quality of this recording is so high that it is worth listening to not only for the historically interested but for anyone who loves this opera. The sound quality is really good for 1937. The orchestral playing under Samosud is passionate and all the singers are very convincing, not least Nikander Khanayev as Herman and Xenia Derzhinskaya as Liza. A golden treasure.

The golden age of opera

The 1960s were a time of pure brilliance in the German and Italian repertoire, and Boris Khaikin’s recording from the Bolshoi Theatre in 1967 (Melodiya) shows that Russia also had an extremely strong opera tradition of the highest quality. This interpretation is simply of the highest calibre and is on a par with any of the major labels’ studio recordings. Zurab Anjaparidze is one of the finest Hermans on record, Tamara Milashkina is an excellent Liza, and especially the vocal combination of the two singers is ideal. The rest of the cast is also good.

Great performance without weaknesses

Valery Gergiev had very successful years at the Mariinsky Theatre (then the Kirov Theatre) in St Petersburg, and his 1992 studio recording (Philips/Decca) shows a flaming orchestra playing with dignity, although the sound quality is not always ideal compared to other studio recordings. Nikolai Putilin and Vladimir Chernov make very fine Count Tomsky and Prince Yeletsky respectively, and Irina Arkhipova sings a very expressive Countess. One of the greatest Russian singers of the period, Gegam Grigorian, makes a fantastic Herrmann, and Maria Guleghina shows why she has dominated her repertoire on the international stage for two decades – and the duets between them are full of passion. The rest of the cast is also excellent.

Modern Classic

You won’t see many modern recordings recommended by me on InterClassical, but this is an exception; and in my opinion, one of the best opera recordings of the last two decades – at least from the Romantic period – that can be compared to the good old days. In a recording of a live concert performance in 2015, Mariss Jansons – who wasn’t really an opera specialist – offers one of the absolute best readings of the score: transparently detailed and highly dramatic, and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks plays with great precision. Oksana Volkova and Larissa Diadkova are both excellent as Polina and the Countess respectively. Misha Didyk is not the most dramatic Hermann, but he gives a desperately charged interpretation. Tatiana Serjan sings Liza with warmth, passion and a wide range of nuances. I have heard Serjan live in many roles and in my opinion she is one of the finest opera singers of her generation, who unfortunately gets far too little attention compared to many other mediocre singers of today with massive PR network.

The ultimate Herman

Herman is one of the most complex characters in the tenor repertoire, and the role covers a wide range of emotions: from passionate love to obsession, despair and madness. In my opinion, no tenor has sung the role better on record than the great Russian Vladimir Atlantov. His voice had it all: beauty of tone, range, dramatic power and an extraordinary ability to embody the psychological struggle of the character.

Atlantov appears in several recordings of Pique Dame. The best known is Seiji Ozawa’s 1992 RCA recording, which unsurprisingly is the first choice for many. It features a very interesting combination of international singers of high quality, not least Mirella Freni, who makes an impressive Liza with temperament. Ozawa’s orchestral interpretation is also top class.

I personally prefer Atlantov in the 1974 recording from the Bolshoi Theatre conducted by Mark Ermler (Melodiya/Philips), where Atlantov’s voice is even fresher and more penetrating and his interpretation is very youthful and energetic, although he shows much maturity and psychological depth in the Ozawa recording 18 years later. The rest of the cast, as well as the orchestral and choral performances in the Ermler recording, are superb. All in all, this recording would be my first choice in this masterpiece.

Two other recordings with Atlantov are the 1975 Bolshoi recording under Yuri Simonov (Via Classic) and a 1984 live recording from the Bavarian State Opera in Munich under Algis Shuraiti (Orfeo). The first lacks the sound quality of the two above and the one from Munich is unfortunately massively cut, but both are interesting and well worth a listen.

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