Ivan Kozlovsky (1900-93) was one of the great stars of Russian opera. He appeared in over 50 operas during his years at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater – 1926 to 1954. The Ukrainian tenor was an intimate of Stalin and performed regularly at private gatherings for the Soviet dictator. He also had a friendly rivalry with the other great tenor at the Bolshoi Sergei Lemeshev (1902-77). I’ll get to him at a later date.
Kozlovsky was a superstar in Russia. He was made a People’s Artist of the USSR in 1940. But he was never allowed to sing outside of the Soviet Union. In addition to singing in many of the standard Russian and Western operas, he also sang lieder and Russian and Ukrainian folk songs.
Kozlovsky sang with good effect into his eighties. He was famous for holding high notes way past their expiration date. But after about 50 he changed his vocal production. He sang almost entirely from this point on from the throat, eschewing almost entirely any use of chest tones. Here are a couple of examples of this type of singing. It’s not without effect, but it’s not up to the standard of his earlier work.
Kuda, kuda from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, was one of Stalin’s favorites. Simon Montefiore in his Stalin: The Court of the Red Czar describes how when the Politburo demanded some particular song Stalin said, “Why put pressure on Comrade Kozlovsky? Let him sing what he wants. And I think he wants to sing Lensky’s aria from Onegin.” Of course the tenor obliged. La donna e mobile shows the same type of vocal production. It also reveals that fioratura was not his strongest suit. Unless, otherwise noted all these recording are in Russian.
Kozlovsky’s recording of Ah, Leve-toi Soleil from Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette shows the tenor at the peak of his powers. His tone is fully supported and his use of head tone is for effect and not out of necessity. It explains why Kozlovsky was sometimes compared to Jussi Björling – a comparison that no tenor can stand. Björling was in a class by himself.
In fernem Land from Lohengrin recorded in 1937 again shows the tenor at his best. Pourquoi me réveiller from Werther is also sung to great effect. The Song of the Indian Guest from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko was recorded in 1949. It makes no great demands on a singer and Kozlovsky brings it off with simple grace. Similarly, the Bach-Gounod Ave Maria (also recorded in 1949) with a piano accompaniment is simply and directly presented without recourse to vocal mannerisms. It is sung in the original Latin. The famous Rachmaninoff Vocalise was recorded in 1947. I can’t recall ever hearing it sung by a man.
I’ll close with the zaniest rendition I’ve ever heard of Ecco ridente from Rossini’s Barber. I doubt if Rossini would have recognized it. Kozlovsky throws in high notes like beer at a baseball game. There’s even a high F. Then he goes into a basso’s range. The entire effect can only be described as manic. Nevertheless, Kozlovsky was a great artist who in his prime would have made a great success in the west had he been allowed out of the Soviet Union.