Search This Blog

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.


JD Hobbes said...

Agreed. His control, dignity, and poise are remarkable. Too bad so many artists were unknown to us for so long.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Yes, indeed. I'm trying to do everything I can, in my little way, to help spread the word, as it were, about these great artists. Of Reizen there can be no doubt. There are enough of his recordings on Youtube now to really give an idea of what this astonishing singer could do. And for so long! Just watching him sing, in his 70's and 80's, is a wonderful textbook on how to sing.

Anonymous said...

A fine article; you’ve portrayed Reizen very well. I like his voice very much too. The only thing I can add is that he lost his voice approximately at age 80; stopped to give concerts. But several years later he realized that he could sing again, so he performed Gremin on his 90’th birthday . Another interesting thing is that many people thought he was cold and unexpressive on stage. Conductors and directors preferred Alexander Pirogov as Boris. But in film his acting looks very well. It often happens so, that great theater actors look mannered or “over the top” , when filmed, and they have to adapt their acting. Reizen didn’t have to do it. I also like very much his Mephistopheles and Viking Guest from “Sadko”.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much. I didn't realize that he stopped for a while at 80 (I guess it would hardly be surprising:) He certainly came back in force--that Rachmaninov piece was done when he was 85, and the power is certainly back by then! I think I can imagine what you say about his stage work. He seems to have been a very introverted man, not given to expansive expression. And you are right that such temperaments often work very well with film. The film camera is registers every little movement of a person's face; so much so that it is said that a film actor acts with his or her eyes more than with the body. I am very found of that film clip with him as Boris--it's a very deep and thoughtful presentation. Thanks for your informative comments. Much appreciated, as always. Edmund

Edmund St. Austell said...


100% Gambler said...

The Gremin aria is unique, but the concert five years earlier, at 85, is astonishing. I didn't know the Rachmaninoff "Silence Of The Night" before, and to hear this "old" man singing such a climactic, long phrase up to a full-throttle F#, is awe-inspiring and humbling.

Anonymous said...

It was UNBELIEVABLE!! The voice and the strength this man has at 90! The adoring eyes of his audience and of the other singers, listening in AWE! It was wonderful! ...I thought they may have waited a bit at the very end, before going into the crescendo, kind of covering his most difficult last note... But I guess it may have also helped a little.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Yes, it is quite astonishing. He came from a family of coal miners, very strong people. He had at least one close relative who lived over 100 years. His dignity and formality, and somewhat spartan lifestyle doubtless contributed to his longevity. He was just the opposite of the hard-drinking, carousing stereotype of many entertainers. He was what the Spanish call "un hombre serio y formal"--a serious and formal man. And, not coincidentally, a very great artist!

Anonymous said...

This is Boris: I am a HUGE fan of all works of Mark Reizen. He was the most popular of all singers in USSR during the stalinist period, roughly from 1930 to 1954. Reizen was MUCH more popular in USSR than Lemeshev, Kozlovsky, and Utesov combined. He was simply number 1 voice in USSR. Reizen was the first Russian singer to perform on the radio in late 1920s, the first Russian singer to entertain Soviet troops right after the war began in 1941, and the first Russian singer to be shown on TV around 1950. In that respect, considering his fame in USSR, he can be compared to Bing Crosby, the most popular singer in US in the same years.

I had been collecting Reizen rarities on youtube, and I found some videos of Reizen from early 1970s. These videos were done for a TV special. You can see that Soviet TV is behind American TV, it is still entirely black and white in early 1970s, and Soviet TV only starts to adopt color around 1974 or 1975. The TV special shows Reizen singing concert songs and patriotic songs. However, I am afraid that Reizen is lip syncing in all these videos, as was the convention on Soivet TV at the time. They would have rather had the singers lip sync to a flawless recording than allow slight flaws that are typical of live recordings.

On to the videos:
1. The Elegie (Massenet)

2. The Prophet (Pushkin/Rimski-Korsakov)

I am afraid that he is definitely lip syncing here, because the earlier recoding of the Prophet is identical to the sound in the music video:

3. The Sacred Stone (patriotic WWII song)

4. Shakespearean Sonnet (Kabalevsky)

5. Slowly My Days Linger (Pushkin/ Rimski-Korsakov) - early color video from 1975

I am afraid that in all 5 videos, Mark Reizen is lip syncing instead of singing live (I am especially afraid in 2 and 3). Lip syncing was a common practice on TV in USSR at the time. Having seen all five videos, What do you think, is he lip syncing or is he singing live? Is he lip syncing in 2 and 3 and is he singing live in 1,4,and 5?

Edmund St. Austell said...

Videos 1, 2, and 3 use lip-synch, but 4 and 5 do not. The reason is purely economic, and very simple; the first three use orchestra, while 4 and 5 use only piano. It is very expensive to get an orchestra together, and if anyone makes a mistake, it has to be done over again. With a piano, the accmpanist can cover any small mistake, and even if he has to do it again, you are only paying one man, not 50 or 60! For this reason, in almost every country, an orchestral recording with singer is done in a studio, where everybody can read the music and watch the conductor. Once the singer separates himself, and stands on a stage, away from the orchestra, the chance for mistakes multiplies greatly.

Anonymous said...

Reizen lip synching!! Damn Soviet conformist! He should have shown that he was a genuinely great singer by going against the lip synching trend and sang live!
Russian rockers Bulat Okudjava and Vladimir Vysotsky ALWAYS sang live - TV special or not. And they had no voices at all, and very deviant, immoral, anti-Soviet lyrics. But Reizen was a stronghold of style, decency, and morality, and plus a huge, perfect voice - he lip synched, because of stupid rules of a TV special. He had a strong enough of a voice to afford never to lip synch. I am so disappointed about Reizen lip synching...

Anonymous said...

This is Boris again; I am really sorry that I wrote such a rant about Mark Reizen. I just thought that he was perfect in every way, so the videos of him lip-synching greatly disappointed me in him.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a thread comparing Russian celebrities to American celebrities. Now, I would like to revise that thread slightly. I would like to compare Russian and American singers not as much based on their style, but more based on their role. For example, Mark Reizen's role in Russian song compares to that of Bing Crosby in American song. This is because Reizen was the most popular Russian singer during the entire stalinist era, much in the same way as Bing was the most popular American singer during FDR and Truman eras. It is true that Bing did not sing Russian opera, Tchaikovsky romances, and Soviet patriotic songs like Reizen did, but like Reizen he was the most popular singer on the radio during WWII. For American society, Bing was a very similar phenomenon to what Reizen was to the Rusian society. Maybe Reizen sounds more like Lawrence Tibbett or Leonard Warren than Bing Crosby, but by role in music, Reizen is very close to Bing. Likewise, Sergey lemeshev and Ivan Kozlovsky are considered "Russian 40s pop music", despite the fact that both Lemeshev and Kozlovsky sang a largely classical repertoire. Likewise, Vladimir Vysotsky might sound like Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan, but his role and his effect in Russian society was 1000s of times greater than that of Dylan or Cohen in US. Vladimir Vysotsky caused a mass hysteria among Russian 60s youth, a huge mania among Russian girls, then he started to write more tragic and more sophisticated songs, got into drugs, and then came his tragic and dramatic demise. Similarly, the Beatles caused a mass hysteria among American 60s youth, a huge mania among American girls, then they stated to write more tragic and more sophisticated songs, got into drugs, and then came their tragic and dramatic demise. So by role, Vysotsky in Russia compares exactly to the Beatles in US.
So here is my new stab at comparing Russian and American singers.

Russian singer ------- American singer
Leonid Sobinov ------- John McCormack
Feodor Chaliapin ------- Al Jolson, Paul Robeson
Antonina Nezhdanova ------- Marian Anderson
Varya Panina ------- Bessie Smith
Alexander Vertinsky ------- Leadbelly
Mark Reizen ------- Bing Crosby
Leonid Utesov ------- Louis Armstrong
Sergey Lemeshev ------- Frank Sinatra
Ivan Kozlovsky ------- Dean Martin
Nadezhda Obukhova ------- Judy Garland
Lidiya Ruslanova ------- Billie Holiday
Claudia Shulzhenko ------- Ella Fitzgerald
Mark Bernes ------- Nat King Cole
George Ots ------- Tony Bennett, Tennessee Ernie Ford
Iosif Kobzon ------- Johnny Cash
Muslim Magomaev ------- Elvis Presley
Alexander Galich ------- Leonard Cohen
Bulat Okudjava ------- Bob Dylan
Vladimir Vysotsky ------- The Beatles

Edmund St. Austell said...

Now's there's an interesting list of comparisons. I'll have to study that one a while! Thank you for a very interesting comment.

Anonymous said...

It seems like Lemeshev, Kozlovsky, Obukhova, Lisitsian, and Reizen were equivalents of American crooners, not equivalents of American opera singers. Edmund, do you think that Reizen sounds like Sinatra and Lisitsian sounds like Tony Bennett?

Edmund St. Austell said...

I don't think I could agree, especially about Lemeshev and Reizen. The former is everywhere recognized as one of the great tenors of the 20th century, and the latter as one of the great basses, who sang into great old age. Lisitsian and Bennet make a better match. I am a great Tony Bennett fan. There are certainly popular singers who sound operatic, when they so wish. It's not that there is such a creature as an "opera singer." There are simply singers who sing what they wish to sing, assuming they have the voice. Many great Wagnerians, for example, also sing German songs, witness Leo Slezak.