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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Leonid Sobinov:  A Great Russian Tenor And A Golden Career

Leonid Vitalyevich Sobinov (Леонид Витальевич Собинов) was born in 1872 in Yaroslav. Unlike so many artists, Sobinov's childhood was relatively calm and unproblematic. He was in fact a golden boy, destined for an astonishingly fortunate and successful life.  His father Vitaly, a Naval officer, saw that Leonid got a good education, and placed him into a boy's school at the age of 9.  He joined a choir upon graduation, and proceeded to enroll in the University of Moscow, where he earned a law degree.  Upon graduation he began to practice law and fulfill his military service, taking time to begin singing lessons.  This led to an audition for the Bolshoi theater, which was a big success, and he received a 2 year contract in 1897.  He performed, in quick succession, many operas, both in Moscow and Petersburg.  These included works such as Faust, Manon, Lohengrin, Rigoletto, Tanhäuser, Prince Igor, and Eugene Onegin.  Sobinov met, and was impressed by Chaliapin, who was very nearly his age, and they sang together, in performance, when Sobinov was only 27 years old.

Sobinov was a very wise young man who understood the importance of guarding his vocal gifts carefully, and he was careful to expand his operatic repertoire with care.  To that end, he traveled to Italy as a young man, to learn, and hopefully to perform.  He did both, and even sang at La Scala in the early 1900's, expanding  his repertoire to include such standards as Marta, Werther, Mignon, and Romeo et Juliette.  He went on, with La Scala now in his background, to attract very favorable attention in London, Paris and Madrid.

To make a fairly long story short,  Sobinov went on to have a brilliant career, everywhere loved, everywhere respected.  He was handsome, a real ladies' man, and had a storied romantic life. (Of course....everything seemed to go well for him!) After the 1917 revolution, he became director of the Bolshoi theater.  In 1923, he was named People's Artist of The Soviet Union.  He died, peacefully,  in 1934.

If ever there were a charmed life, it seems that Sobinov had it.  I'm sure there were problems along the way—no life is perfect—but they seem remarkably few and far between.  What a lucky fellow he seems to have been!  It reminds me somewhat of the modern life of star prima ballerina Diana Vishneva.  Prodigiously talented, and stunningly beautiful from childhood, now People's Artist of Russia, she has known only success since winning the Prix de Lausanne in 1994 at 17 years of age. Some people are just born under lucky stars!

So, what did our golden boy sound like?  Need you ask?   Naturally, he was very good.  His voice was classically lyric, and that is the simplest definition I can think of.  As was the custom in his time, opera singers sang a very wide repertoire.  This does not happen often today (unless one is Jonas Kaufmann), when specialization seems to be the norm.  Sobinov sang Wagner as well as bel canto comic operas such as don Pasquale.  It was very much simpler then.  Singers sang.  Tenors sang high, Basses sang low.  Baritones sang in the middle.  That pretty much covered it.  Here is an absolutely lovely version of "Mein Lieber Schwann," from 1910:

A classic and very beautiful rendition of this aria; one that is actual sung as opposed to declaimed. Like his friend and fellow People's Artist Antonina Nezhdanova, Sobinov always sang Wagner as though it were Bellini, and it worked very well.  I am convinced it would also work very well today if conductors, managers and stage directors would let it. It was this kind of lyric singing that most characterized Sobinov's art, even though he sang roles which today are sung by more heroic voices.  Also, his technique was slightly different than common singing technique today.  His support was rather less, with the result that in the upper register one often hears a kind of "rip" or a "tearing" sound at the end of a note, when he releases it. This is often accompanied by a slight gasp, as though the breath has run out. This means it is only slightly supported.  However, that was characteristic of the time, and it did not effect the essential beauty of the singing.  Here is the very popular "Je crois entendre encore," from 1911:

Again, very beautiful singing, but without the customary high note at the end.  The extreme top was not Sobinov's particular forte, it was rather the quality of the voice and the artistry of the style that command attention.  Finally, here is Werther's  aria "Pourquoi me reveiller":

One of my most faithful readers, Mr. J.D. Hobbes, wrote a comment when I published this blog, several hours ago, and noted that Sobinov's rather obvious holding on to high notes, until there is a gasp and slight "rip" in the voice, may have had something to do with the demands of acoustic recording, and the need to keep the sound volume high to the very end.  It occured to me to check an electric recording of him as an older man, to test this idea.  I was able to find an old sound film, whose voice recording was obviously electric.  Here it is revealing.  Just listen to Sobinov as he sings at the very biginning of the video:

I find that most interesting!  All the delicate nuance and musical line is intact!  I think we have discovererd something here.  It may well be the case that his breathing and lack of diminuendo on the old acoustic recordings were simply an act of necessity.  Thank you Mr. Hobbes, for that fascinating suggestion!

Summing up, it seems fair to classify Sobinov's voice as straight-line lyric, an instrument of great beauty, well enough produced for the time, albeit a bit short on top compared to the Italian model. It is a remarkably consistent voice, strong and commanding.  For me, at least, the outstanding aspect of Sobinov's singing is the intellectual and stylistic artistry that is always present.  There is something hypnotic about his singing that is most attractive, and was, in his day, greatly praised.   A golden life, a beautiful voice, and one of the greatest careers in opera!


JD Hobbes said...

You are right about the "gasp" at the end of notes or phrases. It reminds me of some of the heavy gasps found in Caruso's recordings. But I imagine those old recording techniques made it difficult to sustain the lyric line all the time as they needed to bellow into that old megaphone-like device.

Edmund St. Austell said...

You make a very good point, Mr. Hobbes. It is possible that if they sang a diminuendo ending back in that day, it disappeared off the disk, and they felt obliged to hang on to the note. You have aroused my curiosity...I don't know if Sobinov sang into the electric era or not. I'll check it out. If not him, perhaps another singer who spanned both periods, to see if they performed diminuendos on the electric and did not on the acoustic. Yes, good point! Thanks as always for an interesting comment!

Edmund St. Austell said...

You were right, Mr. Hobbes!! I went back and found an old documentary that was electrically filmed, of Sobinov as an old man singing, and all the dimuendos and dynamic variations are there! I think you have found something important. Well done!

J. D. Hobbes said...

Yes, I can imagine some technician, barking at the singers in those days to "sustain" the notes:-)

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot for the article. You are absolutely right about Sobinov’s main qualities: he had a beautiful timbre and was a fine musician. People who heard him, often wrote that recordings didn’t capture beauty of his timbre He also was very intelligent as an actor. Though he was famous as a “romantic hero” and could be very moving, he never was ‘over the top’. A singer with perfect style And taste.

Unfortunately, there was a tragedy in his life: he had two sons Boris and Yury and a daughter Svetlana. During the Revolution and the Civil war both sons served in the White army, while Leonid became a Commissar and a Chief Manager of the Bolshoi. In 1920 his son Yury was shot by a Bolshevik. He captured that Bolshevik soldier, asked him if he was armed; the soldier said ‘No’ and shot Yury in the back some moment later.

Another tragedy in Sobinov’s family happened after Leonid’s death. His second son Boris was a pianist and composer. With the White army he emigrated to Europe and lived in Germany until 1945. When Berlin was taken by Soviet and American forces, he lived in the American zone. He was asked to give a concert for Russians, and was captured by NKVD people after that concert. They sent him to GULAG, where he spent 10 years. He died soon after he was released from the camp. Naturally, his story was totally unknown in the USSR until the 1990’s. Only Sobinov’s daughter Svetlana lived normal life.

I read an article in Russian Wikipedia on Sobinov, they didn’t mention these facts. It’s natural that this information is unknown in the West, and not many Russians know about it either, because Sobinov is an artist of the pre-revolutionary era.

In the USSR he was glorified as an ideal artist with a perfect biography, you are right about the “Golden boy” reputation.


G. Fiurezi Maragioglio said...

Another wonderful article Edmund!

It makes me realise how much operatic singing has changed Sobinov's time, and leads to a question. If de Reszke came back alive tomorrow, would be able to do everything he did more than a century ago? Or what about Caruso?

Of course, it is just speculation, we can never know, but to me, the short answer is no. Since the early 1900s, the orchestra has become much more powerful, both because of better manufacture of instruments and the rise in pitch, which makes the instruments much brighter and rounder.

The lowest "international" pitch we could find today would be A440. However Verdi, for example, wrote to A432. There is also the notorious example of the Salve dimora casta e pura high C, which it is alleged actually demanded a frequency somewhere between B-natural and B-flat when measured against modern pitch.

The strain that such high tuning puts on the vocal cords is horrendous, and I truly cannot say that de Reszke, even less Caruso, could cope with it! In fact, you mentioned Kaufmann, and in light of his achievements vis-à-vis de Reszke, I could make the bold statement, that given today's difficulties, Kaufmann is the better tenor!

Certainly, only speculation. But interesting still!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you so much, Natalie, for that information. I had no idea. Your knowledge of such matters is truly astounding, and I am much indebted to you, not only here, but generally. In light of this information, I think I need to re-edit the article, and at least made reference to these tragic elements in his biography. I guess it's true that, as we say in English, "there is no free lunch."! Thanks again, you are a treasure-trove of information!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Gioacchino, for that technical tour-de-force! So true that internationally accepted pitch levels are extremely important. That additionally explains so much about the difficulties modern tenors face. Imagine what kind of supermen this makes of tenors like Lauri Volpi, who in his youth could nail a D natural above high C. or tenors like Di Stefano or, as we discussed last week, Eugene Conley, for whom Db's were common and predictable notes. I know that when I try to tune my harpsichord at 440 I break strings all over the place. At 415 they will hold, but even then some harpsichordists will use phosphor bronze strings to avoid breakage. Christophe Rousset, a brilliant harpsichordist, will actually tune in the 390's for some Baroque pieces, so what you point out is general, and applies across the board. This is something many people are unaware of, and it is an excellent idea on your part to bring it up. Bravo!

Darren Seacliffe said...

Thanks for the article, Edmund.

Sobinov is truly the best example of the art of the Russian lyric tenor. A lyric tenor whose voice is one of a pure and simple beauty, not as sugary as the French, fuller than the cooing sound the Italians produce, and easier on the ear than the Germans. I wonder if the difference in techniques in the various national singing schools was responsible for that. I don't think this has anything to do with culture or language. Even if Sobinov sings in Italian or German, he sounds different from the Germans or the Italians.

Edmund St. Austell said...

A very interesting comment! I'm not sure, to be honest. I have always more or less assumed that the native language of the singer was a very important element in the sounds produced, but I could be wrong, obviously. You pose a most interesting question!

Verdiwagnerite said...

Such a fascinating and tragic life story. And a beautiful voice, too.

Despite all the turmoil of wars and revolutions in the first half of the twentieth century artists like Sobinov continued to make great music.
Another great post Edmund.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Kate. Yes, the trials of the poor Russians during the 20th century were just horrendous. The more I learn of all they had to go through, the more I admire their strength and tenacity. That art could have survived in the midst of all that is truly amazing. I read the autobiography of Galina Vishnevskaya several times, I found it so fascinating. She told how, when she was in the pioneer corps in WW2, they had a little theater group that went around singing opera, with a piano accompaniment during the siege of Leningrad. One of their singers dropped dead on stage on night, from starvation, and they buried her outside, in her costume. We cannot readily conceive of the horrors they went through.

Gerhard Santos said...

Hello Sir Edmund! Thank you so much for your knowledge and dedication on sharing this with us!!! Thank you !More Power!~ and *GOD BLESS*

Anonymous said...

Dear Edmund,

This is Boris once again. I listen mostly to old opera singers, but I also sometimes listen to popular singers as well. I just went on a HUGE listening binge of both American and Russian singers. I really wanted to establish the similarity pattern between American and Russian singers. Here is what I am concluding after listening to tens of hours of music.

Feodor Chaliapin=Bing Crosby
Alexander Vertinsky=Billie Holiday
Mark Reizen=Frank Sinatra
Leonid Utesov=Louis Armstrong
Mark Bernes=Johnny Cash
Bulat Okudzhava=early Bob Dylan
Vladimir Vysotsky=early Beatles

Also, I noticed a great similarity between Russian pre-revolutionary singers and AMerican singers of the 20s and 30s. Namely, here is what I had found:

Varya Panina=Bessie Smith
Antonina Nezhdanova=Marian Anderson
Leonid SObinov=John McCormack

Would you agree with these equalizations?