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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Where are you, little star?; Darling Savishna; The Nursery; Lullaby; Sunless; King Saul*; Hopak*; The wild wind blows*; Songs and Dances of Death*; Mephistopheles’ Song of the flea*.

Boris Christoff (bass)
Alexander Labinsky (piano)
*Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française/George Tzipine
Recorded in the Salle de la Mutualité, Paris, between 1955 and 1957 Mono
EMI CLASSICS Great Recordings of the Century
7243 5 67993 2


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This disc shows Boris Christoff at his very best; the repertoire is perfect for him, the voice is sonorously magnificent, and the insight he brings to the texts is unrivalled. Keen readers and enthusiasts will already know of the provenance for this latest release. All the items are culled from a famous 1958 three disc box that was, as far as I am aware, the first serious attempt to record the complete songs of Mussorgsky. EMI have put together the most famous of the songs from that original set, giving us a very well filled representation of both the composer and the artist.

It is fair to say that Mussorgsky was the composer who meant most to Christoff. As John Steane’s informative note tells us, Christoff was actually studying law when he discovered the composer, and he duly redirected the whole course of his life ‘out of profound admiration for the genius of Modest Mussorgsky’. His Boris is one of the best on disc (and is also in EMI’s GROC series), and these song recordings consolidated his already world-wide reputation. The best known and most frequently recorded of the short cycles is undoubtedly Songs and Dances of Death, profound meditations on the nature of life and death. I prefer the intimacy of the original piano version, where the startling originality of the settings comes through with amazing force, but one can easily understand why a whole generation of Soviet composers was drawn to orchestrating them. It is a pity Christoff did not get around to recording the Shostakovich version (dating from 1962) as it is, in my opinion, more faithful to the atmosphere of the original. Still, there is much to admire in the Glazunov/Rimsky version recorded here, particularly the rich (though surely inappropriate) bed of orchestral texture supporting the voice. Hear how Mussorgsky sets the words ‘the blizzard wails and howls’ (in Trepak, or Russian Dance), where subtle understatement, rather than a more typical 19th century romantic word painting, is the order of the day. These are interior monologues that were way ahead of their time, and Christoff clearly understood their significance. The anger and bleakness of The Field Marshall is overwhelming, as dark and grotesque as anything in Mahler.

Christoff was occasionally accused of over-acting, and the character of Mephistopheles seemed to bring this out in him, whether in Gounod (also for EMI GROC), or here in the short Song of the Flea a favourite encore with basses from Chaliapin onwards. Christoff is delightfully over the top, hugely enjoyable and making more straight-laced versions sound boring.

The Nursery is the other real highlight of the disc. Christoff’s characterisation is simply amazing, the voice (as in his multi-role singing in Boris) altered to an almost unrecognisable degree. The poems here are Mussorgsky’s own, and beautifully capture the abundant energy and playfulness of childhood, as well as its pain. It is a real challenge to a bass singer, and Christoff shakes off the years and lightens the voice to give us both the child and the nurse; hear his naivety in the delightful The Beetle, where the child recounts his adventures in the summerhouse.

The rest of the disc is equally enjoyable. I particularly admired the piano playing of Christoff’s regular recital partner, Alexandre Labinsky (also a skilled orchestrator, as the original box demonstrated), which makes it all the more regrettable that the original version of Songs and Dances was not included. Georges Tzipine’s conducting is workmanlike rather than inspired, and the mono sound is amazingly full and detailed, a tribute to EMI’s 1950s engineering. Full texts and translations are included. A great recording of the century? Most definitely!

Tony Haywood


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