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CD Button Romanova, K. Flores, Semenchuk; Kulko, Leiferkus, Schagidullin; Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Jurowski. Helicon 02-9672 (3)

Recordings Pique Dame Cover 1018

TCHAIKOVSKY'S Pique Dame (a.k.a. Queen of Spades) requires a delicate balance between passion and finesse, anguish and propriety. On this recording, Vladimir Jurowski, conducting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, deftly strikes that balance for a theatrically effective and musically satisfying reading, despite an uneven cast of singers. Jurowski takes the obsessive brooding of Gherman, the desperate passion of Lisa and the weary terror of the Countess and blends them seamlessly with the ordered frivolity of Russian high society. Like Eugene Onegin, Pique Dame depends on the juxtaposition of the public and private lives of its characters. The polite minuets and French couplets of the ballroom put into stark relief the characters’ inner turmoil. Jurowski understands that this equilibrium is important to the overall effect of the score. He gives equal care and attention to the most exciting moments that propel the drama forward (such as the confrontation between Gherman and the Countess) and to the moments that seem less important but give shape, texture and atmosphere to the story (such as the Dance of the Shepherds and Shepherdesses in Act II). As a result, Jurowski’s interpretation feels more complete and more engrossing than many.

As the tortured outsider Gherman, Oleg Kulko sings with an impressive, muscular sound that, unfortunately, weakens in the role’s heroic upper reaches. Conversely, the delicate Lisa of Karina Flores soars beautifully through the role’s most impassioned and anguished moments, as in her Act III aria, but lacks focus when the score demands strong, decisive declamation in her middle and lower voice. Theirs is an odd match of skills that leaves Gherman and Lisa’s two thrilling scenes together—the duet at the end of Act I and the canal scene—musically uneven and dramatically flat. Kulko is well matched with the Countess of mezzo-soprano Nina Romanova, a consummate vocal actress whose subtlety makes Gherman’s manic behavior seem that much more frightening and unhinged. Similarly, the cool elegance of Albert Schagidullin’s Prince Yeletsky, Gherman’s unsuccessful rival for Lisa’s heart, contrasts with Lisa’s impulsive infatuation with Gherman. 

Ekaterina Semenchuk is luxuriously miscast as Pauline. Her voice is too opulent and too distinctive for the role of Lisa’s friend. Nonetheless, Semenchuk’s even tone, of which she gives generously, is a highlight of this recording, as is the appearance of veteran baritone Sergei Leiferkus in the secondary but pivotal role of Count Tomsky.  —Steven Jude Tietjen

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