Saturday, January 30, 2010
The Great Mark Reizen, People's Artist of the USSR
It is safe to say that Mark Reizen was one of the great singing basses of all time. Until recently, he has not been so well known outside Russia and the other countries of the former Soviet Union. Thanks to Youtube, and the web generally, the work of this magnificent singer is becoming much better known in the West.
Mark Reizen was born into a family of miners in Zaitsevo, in present-day Ukraine, in 1895. He was drafted into the Tsarist army at the outbreak of World War I, and greatly distinguished himself in battle. He was a very big man; strong, severe and courageous. He was twice decorated with the St. George Cross for Bravery, 4th class—the highest honor with which a regular soldier could be honored.
Encouraged by friends to try and develop his abilities as a singer, he began his studies after the war and made his operatic debut in 1921 as Pimen in Boris Godunov. At six foot three, and possessed of a very serious and dignified manner, he was a commanding presence on the stage. One success led quickly to another, and at the age of 35 he became a member of the Bolshoi, where he remained until his retirement in 1954. He had by that time received the Stalin Prize three times (1930, 1941, 1949) and had been named People's Artist of the USSR in 1937. These are extraordinary honors, especially considering the fact that Reizen was Jewish, and Stalin was known not to like Jews in general, and particularly on the stage portraying Slavic heroes. However, even with this prejudice, he could not resist honoring Reizen, whom he greatly admired as an artist. Reizen bore the honors with great and almost severe dignity. He was a private person, very formal and taciturn. He was certainly aware of the potential handicap of being Jewish, but his retreat into aloofness worked very well for him. (And of course it did not hurt that he was prodigiously gifted.) He continued to teach after retiring from the Bolshoi, and embarked on a long career of concertizing, singing brilliantly until he was very old. His last public appearance was at a gala at the Bolshoi in honor of his 90th birthday, at which occasion he sang Gremin's aria from Eugene Onegin. We will see that video shortly. It defies belief.
Reizen's voice was big, and he handled it well. He never barked or growled (a failing of some basses), but invariably bestowed grace, elegance and control—as well as drama—on the music he sang. He sang all the great bass parts, and sang them all well. The comparison with Chaliapin always arises, and I believe the simplest way to differentiate them is with the observation that where Chaliapin was a singing actor, Reizen was an acting singer. You will see what I mean.
Here is the great bass as Boris Godunov, singing the well known monologue:
The acting is wonderful, restrained and dignified, and the large voice, as always, is under perfect control. One has the impression that there is always much more available, in reserve, for use at moments of high drama. It is impossible to fault this interpretation, in any way.
Here is Reizen, at 85 years of age, singing Rachmaninov's "Do Not Depart," a song typical of those he sang in concert during this period of his life:
Such singing at any age is admirable, and at 85 it is truly astonishing.
This is not, however, the most amazing of his performances. That would surely have to be his appearance in the Bolshoi gala production of Eugene Onegin. Reizen here is 90 years of age. I call your attention in advance to the reaction of the audience, and, even more telling, that of the other singers on the stage and in the wings, who realize they are seeing something absolutely unique: This video is well worth watching to the very end, (the aria is only 5 minutes) because it is one in a million. It is, for example, at the very end, when friends and family help him to a platform to accept applause, that one realizes just what it means to be singing an operatic aria at 90 years of age!
The great, and unique, Mark Reizen.
at 1:44 PM