Decca in Belgrade

The story of how Decca came to record seven classics of the Russian opera repertoire in 1955 begins with a somewhat shadowy figure. The project was partly arranged and facilitated by a film and record executive, Gerald Severn. Born in Moscow, Severn worked in the US but had connections in countries behind the Iron Curtain; he assisted Russian actors in defecting to the West and, after working with Decca, became the artists and records executive for Artia, an American label which issued eastern-European recordings of folk and classical music such as Romanian folk-songs and dances and the ‘Gypsy King in Hi-Fi’, starring the Hungarian fiddler Sandor Lakatos, father of the best-selling classical musician of our own time, Roby Lakatos. Severn’s connections extended farther east, to the Red Army Chorus and even a locally produced ‘Passport to China’; his own long-standing passion for ballet (he had worked with Serge Diaghilev) produced a ‘Teach your child ballet’ album and accompanying book.

Severn agreed with Decca to underwrite a series of Russian opera recordings to be made with the company of the Belgrade Opera. One of the company’s senior recording supervisors, Arthur Haddy, was dispatched to Belgrade to find a suitable recording venue. He settled upon the cinema in the city’s House of Culture complex. By this stage in his long Decca career, however, Haddy was delegating onsite studio work to his junior colleagues, and the job was assigned to the Australian conductor-turned-producer James Brown, who had worked with Haddy on the company’s first stereo recordings in Geneva the previous year.

As was common in the early days of stereo, when the great majority of consumers were still listening on mono equipment, the recordings were made in both formats. The engineer responsible for the mono set-up was Kenneth Wilkinson, who alongside Haddy devised the Full Frequency Range Recording technique (ffrr) that made Decca a household name in the 1950s. His stereo colleague was Roy Wallace, hired by Haddy in 1953 as a brilliant young engineer who had already been developing the new technology for several years.

Interviewed in 1999 by Malcolm Walker, Wallace recalled: ‘James Walker, Kenneth Wilkinson and Joe van Biene and I flew out to Milan, from where we travelled on the Orient Express to Belgrade. Our gear had been flown out. The cinema wasn’t available until the nightly showings finished around 11pm. All the seats then had to be removed first, the gear unpacked, the microphones run out. Around midnight we were ready to start recording, which would continue until the early hours of the morning, sometimes until 8am. Everything then had to be taken down and the seating replaced. We worked very hard for 19 days but somehow managed to get through the sessions.’

Those sessions took place in February 1955 and included Borodin’s Prince Igor and Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina. The following month, once the Decca team had returned to London, the company decamped 400km east to Zagreb where, for reasons now lost, Boris Godunov was recorded by Gerald Severn alone, acting as producer and balance engineer. The internal politics of this decision may be inferred from a note left on the Decca recording longsheet once the tapes had been auditioned back in London by Walker: ‘This opera was not recorded, nor edited by us… This is not fit, in my opinion, for dubbing [transfer to disc] at the moment.’ Against that pointed appraisal may be set the judgement of the audio-centred High Fidelity magazine in November 1956: ‘The recording is very good indeed’.

However, the house team of Walker, Wallace and Wilkinson was back in Belgrade that autumn. An even more intensive schedule between 5 September and 10 October yielded recordings of Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades by Tchaikovsky, The Snow Maiden by Rimsky-Korsakov and A Life for the Tsar by Glinka – though in the Soviet-era rewrite known as Ivan Susanin. A curious coda to the sequence was made around a decade later, when another label pitched up in Belgrade and recorded the company in one of its signature pieces, Don Quichotte of Massenet.

Background on Belgrade

The choice of Belgrade was an astute one, expedient for political, commercial and musical reasons. Business and cultural relations between the West and General Tito’s Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia were less fraught than with Communist bloc countries. Fresh from a successful tour of Boris Godunov in Switzerland the previous year, the Belgrade Opera in 1955 was keen to make an impression on an international public. This they proceeded to do with the stamina of a young and hungry company: the recordings on Decca served to whet the appetites of new audiences for the following decade, further satisfied by an impressive touring schedule across the major houses and festivals of Western Europe and North Africa, including residencies in Wiesbaden, Paris, Lausanne, Venice, Cairo, Florence, Warsaw, Turin, Barcelona, Monte Carlo, Alexandria and Edinburgh.

Though the National Theatre of Belgrade had been founded in 1859, organised operatic activity in the Serbian capital dated only from the years after the end of World War I. As ever, supply and demand went hand in hand: based in Zagreb since 1870, the Croatian operatic scene had been much healthier for longer. Before 1914, about 40 Croatian operas were composed and performed compared with no more than five known works for the musical stage in Serbia. Thus the founding director of the opera company in Belgrade was also a composer, Stanislav Binički (‘the first national Serbian opera composer,’ according to the scholar Tatiana Markovic). He was succeeded in 1924 by another composer, Stevan Hristić, who considerably widened the repertoire to include not only local operas by himself, Binički and Petar Konjovic and the ever-popular standards of Verdi and Puccini but also Czech and Russian works.

Again, there were sound practical reasons for this artistic direction. Without an established local school of operatic singing and production to draw upon, the house looked north and east for its soloists and production staff. Russian singers and designers then passed on their experience to the next generation of singers, many of whom feature on these Decca recordings: by 1939 the company entirely comprised native singers, even if many of them had received their training from older centres of excellence in Austria and Italy.

Thus the Belgrade Opera had a solid tradition of staging Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and Borodin by the mid-1950s, and that tradition had its roots in a practical knowledge of pre-Revolutionary Russian opera craft, lending to these recordings what might be regarded as a new authenticity. In fact by this time performances of Onegin, Boris and (a Belgrade Opera speciality) Prince Igor were mostly sung in the local language; they sang in Russian for Decca but switched back to Serbian on tour: ‘Nobody minded,’ recalled the conductor on several of these recordings, Oskar Danon, ‘even when we did Don Quichotte in Paris.’ Just so: Le Figaro reported of the occasion that ‘This evening left as a whole a memory of a perfect success, all the more complete for being unexpected.’

Indeed, when the LPs were first issued (in mono; the stereo recordings were held back, and appeared rather belatedly in the late 1960 and 70s), they offered both novelty and fond memories of a bygone era to many older melomanes. One early reviewer of the Belgrade Khovanshchina in Gramophone cast his mind back to the last time he had heard the piece anywhere near complete: at Covent Garden, in 1911. Even back there and then, the performance would have been sung either entirely in English, or in a macaronic salad of languages depending on the casting. By contrast, the Belgrade Opera recordings were all-Russian, and in most cases (notably excluding Boris) as complete as the vagaries of their performing editions would allow.

Podium Presence

In accounting for the success of the recordings at the time, much credit must be given to Oskar Danon, the successor to Hristić as Music Director of the Belgrade Opera. Born in Sarajevo in 1913, Danon had received his training in Prague, both in composition and conducting, but he returned to Bosnia and joined the Resistance movement after the Nazi occupation of his home city in 1941. ‘We were fighting and dreaming about freedom,’ he later recalled. ‘I remember one night being with my best friend from school, Pavle Goranin, at the foot of the Romanija mountain, and on Radio Berlin we accidentally caught Karajan’s performance of the Eroica. When it was over, Pavle said he was sure that one day I would conduct the Eroica in the Kolorac Hall in Belgrade, and he would sit in the audience and enjoy it. Unfortunately, he could not wait that long. He died fighting in the Bele Vode suburb of the city in January 1944.’

In April 1941, Allied bombardment of Belgrade had brought an abrupt close to the first chapter in the history of the Belgrade National Theatre, when all its sets, costumes and props were lost to fire. Musical life of a sort continued, but when Danon took over in 1944, the opera company was in dire straits. It was he who gave the upbeat to Onegin on 17 February 1945, which thus became the first performance in liberated Belgrade. Danon was instrumental in reconnecting the company to its Russian traditions and re-establishing the level of executive standards that had Severn and Decca knocking on the door. And having stepped down from the directorship in 1959, it was he, in partnership with Krešimir Baranović (1894–1975), who led the Belgrade Opera on its foreign tours.

In advance of the company’s appearance at the Edinburgh International Festival in August 1962, Opera magazine painted an affectionate portrait of Danon as a man of the theatre: ‘He seems to regard every opera as a Gesamtkunstwerk in which the conductor takes over the production once the performance has begun. In fact, he enjoys producing almost as much as conducting and takes an active interest in non-musical theatre … Although he refrains from unnecessary gymnastics on the rostrum, he radiates energy … His dark and deep-set eyes glow with enthusiasm or sparkle with pleasure, and the solemn photographic studies of him which appear in music magazines contrast sadly with his big smile and flow of invigorating talk.’

To bring the history of the company in a poignant full circle, Danon was on the podium once more in the spring of 1990 for the re-opening of the National Theatre after extensive renovation, conducting The Knight of Zeta by Konjovic ‘with real love and appreciation’ (Opera). Late in life, he recalled that momentous Onegin in 1945, ‘tied up with the singers I inherited, and then a new generation of artists that I raised and who grew with me. Together we raised the level of performances in Belgrade, throughout Yugoslavia, even in the world. And through our efforts, we dragged the Decca recording team here, who recorded seven operas and opened our path to the world. At the time, we were not aware of how important it was.’ He died, aged 97, in his adopted home of Belgrade.

Lasting values

By 1962, the success of the mid-1950s Decca recordings could be measured by the degree to which they had enhanced the international standing of their protagonists. Danon was making recordings in London for RCA and conducted Prince Igor at Chicago Lyric Opera. The Dosifey for Khovanshchina, both on Decca and in Edinburgh, was Miroslav Čangalović, whose assumption of Boris had by then drawn glowing comparisons with titans of the role such as Chaliapin and Christoff. ‘He has a magnificent voice,’ reported the critic of El Ciervo when Čangalović sang the role at the Liceu of Barcelona in 1960, ‘and his nuances of lyricism and drama are worthy of the great interpreters … The second-act Monologue was achieved superbly by Čangalović; all the torment in the perturbed Czar’s mind could be experienced afresh. The human sense of the interpretation was so great that it almost went unnoticed as interpretation.’

The ‘massive tone’ of the mezzo-soprano Melanija Bugarinovic had already attracted attention as part of Joseph Keilberth’s 1952 Bayreuth Ring cycle, in which she sang Erda; like many of her compatriots, she was particularly valued as a singing actor in (for example) the Kabanicha she gave in the 1957 Kát’a Kabanová at the Maggio Musicale in Florence: ‘a figure I shall long remember,’ reported the local critic for Opera; ‘and Dikoj [Nikola Cvejić] had that personality which commands the stage with a flick of the eyebrow. Kát’a was played by Valerija Heybal with a tragic inevitability and intense vocal presence which particularly impressed the public.’

These qualities may be appreciated anew in the Decca recordings of 1955 – now remastered for CD for the first time – not least as a legacy of Oskar Danon. ‘Art cannot be like a bus or a tram, accepting everyone who enters,’ he said in 1992. ‘There must be a controller at the door who will choose and say “You should do this, and you should do that” … We also respected the compulsory question in art – why? Because if that question can be answered, then everything is fine. Why did you make this decision and not that one? That’s why. If you do not have such an answer, you do not have quality.’