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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-81)
Boris Godunov (1868-74, rev. orch. Rimsky-Korsakov) [177’55].
Boris Christoff (bass) Boris Godunov/Pimen/Varlaam; Eugenia Zareska (mezzo) Marina, Feodor; Kim Borg (bass) Rangoni, Shchelkalov; Andrzej Bielecki (tenor) Shuisky, Missail, Krushchov; Lydia Romanova (mezzo) Nurse, Hostess; Ludmila Lebedeva (soprano) Xenia; Nicolai Gedda (tenor) Grigory; Raymond Bonte (bass) Lavitsky; Russian Chorus of Paris; French National Radio Orchestra/Issay Dobrowen.
Rec. Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris, on July 17th-21st, 1952. First issued on HMV ALP1044-47.
PROLOGUE - Scene 2, People’s Chorus [4’27]; Entry of Borisa [4’08]. Act 2b - Boris’ Monologue [5’09]; Clock Scene [4’02]; Act 4 - Boris’ Farewell and Prayerc [4’25]; Funeral Bell and Death of Borisa [4’20].
Fyodor Chaliapin (bass); achorus and orchestra/Eugene Goossens; bLondon Symphony Orchestra/Max Steinmann.
From abpreviously unpublished, cHMV DB934, rec. aQueen’s Small Hall, London on May 26th, 1926, bJune 6th, 1931, cMay 21st, 1926. Mono ADD
Notes and synopsis included.
NAXOS GREAT OPERA RECORDINGS 8.110242-44 [204’26: 64’35 + 68’12 + 71’39].


A classic set, and one that vies for the affections with the possibly more famous Cluytens/Christoff recording of Boris. To have the Dobrowen for £15, complete with fascinating fillers (three quarters of an hours’ worth) is quite remarkable, though, and the opportunity to compare and contrast Christoff and Chaliapin in this work is the most intelligent use I’ve ever seen Naxos make of filler-time. The only black mark is that there are a mere five seconds between the end of the opera and the first excerpt, so if you’re not quick the effect of Mussorgsky’s closing bars will be spoilt.

Surely this is the most impressive ‘Prologue’ in all opera?. Its 25 minutes and two scenes (courtyard of the Novodevichhiy Monastery and the Great Square, both Moscow) span huge crowd activity (and what bells issue forth from the Cathedrals of the Assumption and the Archangels!) and hugely emotive passages for Boris.

Right from the outset there is a wonderful feeling of Old Russia. Orchestral ensemble is excellent and the musical discourse is driven by an internal energy that promises much. Immediately we know we are on a huge canvas. Stanislaw Pieczora is commanding as the Guard (great that smaller roles are well-cast as well as the larger ones), and Kim Borg as Shchelkalov makes his mark preparing for Christoff/Boris’s entrance. Dobrowen prepares for this moment by conjuring up a real sense of stillness.

Of course it is Christoff’s larger than life character that dominates this set, but let us not underplay the contributions of other members of the cast. Eugenia Zareska’s Marina is superb (as is her flighty Fyodor, but as Marina in her Act 3 she really shows her talent - CD2 track 14). And Nicolai Gedda as the False Dimitry (oh, and Grigory also) is hardly less impressive, his tenor rich yet powerful. The combination of Marina and Dimitry at the end of Act 3 is a powerful one indeed (Marina’s pitching is a thing of wonder). Ludmila Lebedeva makes an expressive Xenia (try her lament at the beginning of Act 2).

Bielecki is a nasal Shiusky while Kim Borg is full-bodied and smooth in his portrayal of Rangoni.

Dobrowen paces the action superbly, inspiring his players to great heights. Take the Polonaise from Act 3 Scene 2, for example, which goes with a real swing. Deeper tracts (and there are many) are never unnecessarily lingered upon, yet still seem to be accorded full dramatic weight. There is an unflagging momentum that runs through the entire performance, but in terms of more interior expression one could do no better than to examine Dobrowen’s accompaniment to Pimen’s Act 4 Narration (CD3, track 10), exquisitely shaded and providing not only a backdrop but an integral part of the melodic activity.

Mark Obert-Thorn used American LP pressings as his source material on the grounds that EMI’s master tape has a surfeit of bumps and pre-echo and his decision must be enthusiastically welcomed on the evidence of the finished product.

The fillers are fascinating, with an unpublished People’s Chorus, a previously unpublished take of the Clock Scene and two tracks (Entry of Boris and Funeral Bell and Death of Boris) unpublished on 78s. Chaliapin is the featured Boris here (he is not present on the first except, the People’s Chorus). Recording is excellent for the vintage (1926-31).

A pity Goossens is on the sluggish side for the People’s Chorus (Prologue, Scene 2), but Chaliapin makes the listener sit up in his entry passage … his voice cuts like a knife and in the Act 2 monologue he shows his impassioned side. But it is the Clock Scene that is special (LSO/Steinmann). The opening is simply terrifying. The farewell has an appropriately monumental quality.

A massively impressive release, and one that once more places us in debt to Naxos.

Colin Clarke

See also review by Robert Farr

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