> Modest Mussorgsky - Boris Godounov (excerpts) [CMG]: Classical CD Reviews- Jun2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1835-1881):
Boris Godounov (excerpts)
(version completed by Rimsky-Korsakov)
Boris.............Feodor Chaliapin (bass)
Tchelkalov......Aristide Baracchi (baritone)
Shuisky..........Angelo Bada (tenor)
Dimitri.............Dino Borgioli (tenor)
Varlaam..........Salvatore Baccaloni (bass)
Missail............Giuseppe Nessi (tenor)
Theodore.........Margherita Carosio (soprano)
Lavretzky.........Dennis Noble (baritone)
Tcherniakovsky..Aristide Baracchi (baritone)
Innocente........Octave Dua (tenor)
(Pimen............Nicola Moscona)
Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vincenzo Bellezza, conductor
from a performance at the Royal Opera House,
Covent Garden (with interpolations), 4 July 1928
GUILD GHCD 2206 [72:14]

Veteran collectors will have long cherished their copies of EMI's three LP set of recordings taken from performances at Covent Garden between 1926 and 1936 (RLS 742). That set contained substantial excerpts from the 4 July 1928 performance of Boris Godounov, famous for preserving almost the entirety of the title role as performed in that edition by the great Russian bass, Feodor Chaliapin.

Guild and the Immortal Performances Recorded Music Society have now gone to great lengths to gather on one disc all the surviving sides made of that performance, now extended to a full hour-and-a-quarter, though with some interpolations from elsewhere to fill in gaps in the originals (more on these below).

The performance is sung in Italian (and a little Latin, in the Revolutionary Scene of Act IV) by a largely Italian cast. Chaliapin of course sings the original Russian text.

When EMI issued their excerpts they had to try to reconstruct the text of the Italian portions of the performance by ear since they seemed not to correspond exactly to any existing published Italian version. The Guild set bypasses this problem by not including a libretto but it must be said that the booklet is otherwise (except for some misspelling of artists' names) very well done, including an extended synopsis cued to the excerpts included, a discography of the sides recorded at the performance, notes on the restorations made for this reissue, an article on Chaliapin, and many photos.

The transfers are very well done. There is, inevitably, some noise, especially prominent in the earliest scenes (or perhaps the ear simply gradually adjusts). But, allowing for the limitations and vagaries of instantaneous recording in the largely experimental days of the late 1920s, the voices are wonderfully well reproduced in this edition, better than the EMI and far superior to the version issued in his "private" LP series by the late Edward J Smith (UORC 161).

There some inconsistencies of pitch. How much this is due to the problems encountered in the originals (a number of scenes, though recorded, were judged at the time too faulty to be issued) and how much to the current restoration cannot be determined. In any case the non-Chaliapin portions, particular from the Polish and Revolutionary scenes, vary between a quarter-tone and a semitone flat. In addition Pimen's narrative in the scene of Boris's death (taken apparently, though nowhere specified as such, from a performance at the New York Metropolitan) is slightly sharp.

Still this is probably as complete a rendering of this important performance as we shall ever have, undistorted by sonic improvements and presenting honest and full-toned reproductions of the originals. That it preserves Chaliapin's greatest role as well as it does is a tribute to the producers. At the price it should be in every serious collection.

Calvin M Goodwin

See also reviews by Christopher Fiefield and Robert Farr

Letter received from the

We have been inordinate admirers of Calvin Goodman's two-volume book on Edward J. Smith, the first of the "pirates" so called, and we appreciated Goodwin's review of our release on Guild CDs of what exists of Chaliapin's Boris. We do not agree, however, with his assessment of a pitch variation which amounts to a semi-tone (thereabouts), a fact he has continued to assert in our recent letter exchange.

Mr. Goodwin initially informed me that he based his calcula-tion on his Technics machine, the digital read-out of which indicated to him a semitone variance. Mr. Goodwin also offered as his reference (for turntables), Michael Hemstock's book on Fernando De Lucia (The King of Speed Problems), quoting Hem-stock that the difference between 78 rpm and 64 rpm is two full tones. Hence 7 rpm constitutes one tone and, necessarily, 3.5 rpm equates to a full semi-tone. And yet Mr. Goodwin later maintained that his offset of 5/10ths of a single rpm on his turntable equated to a full semi-tone of pitch variance. When asked to address this apparent contradiction, he left us with his belief that his Technics machine indicated what it did, and that's what he continues to rely on. But one doesn't have to have his Technics machine with pitch control to determine the actual pitch deviation.

We decided to undertake an experiment, which music lovers with a pitch-variable (readout) LP turntable can also conduct. If they play the Guild CD on their CD machine and compare it to a commercial recording of Boris on LP (such as the Christoff HMV Dobrowen recording), they'll find that the pitch for the Kromy Forest Scene won't match until they reach 32.8 on the turnta-ble readout. That isn't a semi-tone off, it's a quarter-tone (or, according to Mr. Goodwin's own figures, drawn from Hem-stock's book, it's an eighth of a tone), inaudible to most mu-sicians (and most music critics) and within acceptable broad-cast restoration tolerances. Our turntable speeds have just recently been recalibrated and the variable speed settings are dead on, as shown on a stroboscope.

After numerous exchanges, it became evident that because we do not have a CD machine with pitch control, the two of us needed to find a common method of measuring the variance. In conclu-sion, Mr. Goodwin, who did not have a commercial Boris on LP, selected a work he knew well, and on the turntable changed the pitch control to what he termed a semi-tone. This he stated was achieved by changing his turntable pitch control from 33.3 to 32.7 (a changed 6/10th of a rpm). He considered this speed to represent a semi-tone in pitch discrepancy.

Contrary to Mr. Goodwin's assertions in his letter to us, claiming that 32.8 represents a deviance of a semi-tone, Mr. Goodwin, in his book on EJS (Volume I) on page 24, referring to EJS disc No. 114, states:

"The set plays a quarter-tone low at 33.3: a playing speed of 33.8 - 34 has been suggested to compensate."

In this finding, he asserts that a lapse of 5/10th (or 33.8 rpm) of a tone constitutes a quarter tone but in his defense of his findings, as to the speed deviation in the Kromy Forest (or Revolutionary Scene), he states that this same 5/10th de-viation down to 32.8 equals a semi-tone.

We consider a semi-tone lapse to be grievous, therefore the 32.8 demonstration that we conveyed to Mr. Goodwin and our quotation of his own language in his book on EJS, should have raised questions in his assessment, which it did not. This is most regrettable. I have long admired Mr. Goodwin's work on the EJS series but we have every reason, in this instance, to question and protest Mr. Goodwin's statements as to the degree of pitch variation.

Five tenths (5/10ths) of a single revolution does not support Mr. Goodwin's finding of a semi-tone variance as to the Kromy Scene. Pimen's narrative is also 5/10ths of a single rpm off, which is a quarter-tone. All this within acceptable variance, for these ancient discs, often the result of speed-drift in the analogue machine, though I, myself, wish there to be no variation at all.

We are not disputing a critic's negative assessment, which are issues of taste upon which reasonable people can often dis-agree, we are disputing his facts. His assessment is unfair to the Guild release on a basis that a simple demonstration proves.


Richard Caniell


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