Gorchakova, taking the soprano lead, positively withered in the final act
THE NAME at Edinburgh this year is Dvorak, and it's a name designed to do what Tchaikovsky did for the Festival a few years ago: pull in the public but explore some byways of the repertory as well. For Dvorak is one of those composers whose fame is selective. An assimilator between East and West with a win- ning gift for melody, he has always been one of Central Europe's most popular cultural exports to the English- speaking world. But we celebrate him essentially as an orchestral composer of symphonies and concertos, whereas our great-grandfathers knew him as a composer for the voice - and above all for the large-scale choral works that British music festivals consumed, and commissioned, in quantity. Works such as The Spectre's Bride, written for Birmingham in 1885, St Ludmilla for Leeds the following year, and the Requiem for Birmingham in 1891, were enthusiastically received but haven't proved so durable.

Edinburgh, accordingly, has been trying to restore a broader picture of what Dvorak was about; and alongside some of the symphonies (Nos 7 and 8 played by the St Petersburg Philharmonic) and concertos (for violin, cello and piano, all given in a single concert by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra), the week's programme included the Requiem, an impressive piece which filled an entire concert by the RNSO and Edinburgh Festival Chorus under Charles Mackerras at the Usher Hall. But impressive is the word, rather than inspired or obviously from the heart. This requiem is municipally grand, inflated with the values of the Midlands middle-classes it was meant to please, and I don't believe it holds its own in the canon of great requiem settings from Mozart to Britten.

That said, though, it has striking moments, mostly when the loaded textures are stripped down, and especially in the Hostias, where the voices are accompanied by a simple woodwind obbligato bizarrely prescient of Arvo Part. It also rewards strong but eloquent singing; and there was plenty of that here, not least from the superlative quartet of soloists who were seriously employed in this piece (not by any means a sing-your-aria-and- go engagement) and gave full value. Alastair Miles, the bass, is a voice of exceptional finesse in its register, and is richer, more capacious, every time I hear him. Jane Eaglen, the soprano, has tremendous vocal presence with a faultless top and immaculate control that keeps in check a rather slow vibrato. And I could offer comparable eulogies on Randi Stene, the mezzo, and Thomas Moser, tenor. The only thing I didn't like was Mackerras's insistence that the Latin be pronounced the Central European way, so "c" becomes "ts" and the "g" of "agnus" is hard. It's common enough these days but, I always think, ugly; and surely unnecessary given the British provenance of this piece.

The other name at Edinburgh this week has been Rimsky-Korsakov, a composer whose reputation has switchbacked like no other I can think of in recent years. Not so very long ago he was honoured as the midwife of the Russian nationalist school: the man whose cultivated revisions made Mussorgsky's less cultivated operas fit for the stage. Then, as Mussorgsky's "rawness" found new admirers, Rimsky was downgraded to a meddler. And now, since the end of the Soviet Empire released a flood of Russian singers and Russian repertory to the West, we've begun to realise that Rimsky is actually an operatic master in his own right. Decorative rather than deep in his response to character, he had a strangely pre-Wagnerian belief (for someone who was otherwise under Wagner's spell) in the complete ascendancy of music over theatre, but he beggars criticism with sheer beauty of sound. The two examples at Edinburgh have been Sadko and The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, both in full stagings by the Kirov Opera under Valery Gergiev and ravishing to hear - thanks to the glorious richness of the Kirov Orchestra (the finest orchestra, I'm sure, in modern Russia) and some magnificent singing from company stars such as Marina Shaguch and Vladimir Galusin. The Sadko cast was largely the same as on the Kirov recording which Philips issued last year; and that release was one of the very best opera sets that came my way in 1994.

The problem, though, with seeing the Kirov as well as hearing them is that their production values are, by Western standards, risible: not just old-fashioned (which might be endearing) but a shambles of missed cues, false moves and acting of extraordinary fakeness from the School of Camp Indifference. One wants to find excuses for it all, to justify it as tradition and remind oneself that Sadko and Kitezh are only fairy tales. But even the fantasy and spectacle of these pieces is poorly done. When Kitezh turned invisible it was pathetic. And Kitezh is actually a piece with dramatic potential beyond the level of tableaux-pageantry that governs Sadko. It's a fascinating variant on the frustrated marriage plot of The Magic Flute, with a central couple who are patently not ready for each other on earth but finally come together in heaven. Earlier this month I saw a forcefully untraditional production of the same piece done by Harry Kupfer in the Bregenz Festival; and for all his efforts to puncture the prettiness of the myth it proved that Kitezh has a life beyond painted drops and fairy kitsch. The Kirov would do well to note this.

While they're about it, they might also note that the relentless touring schedule the company runs these days seems to be taking its toll of some star voices. I described the singing as magnificent, and so in general terms it was, with the raw, resinous edge that gives good Russian voices a peculiarly penetrative brilliance. But it wasn't so magnificent as the Kirov's concert performance of Kitezh at the Barbican last year. Some of the voices sounded tired; and Galina Gorchakova, who took the soprano lead in Kitezh, positively withered in the final act - no match for her rival Elena Prokina at Bregenz. Maybe she was ill; but my guess from a glance at her Edinburgh schedule (it included a complete Ruslan and Lyudmila the night before) is that she's exhausted. Given that she is also the Kirov's biggest audience draw in the West, they should treat her more protectively.

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