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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839 – 1881) Boris Godunov (1868) Highlights
Prologue: Da zdrávstvuet tsar Borís Feódorovich! (Coronation of Boris)
Act II: Skázochka pro to i syo – A preslávny vityá, dostóiny konovód (Apartments scene)
Act III scene 2: Váshey, strásti ya nye vyéryu (Polonaise) – O tsaryévich, umolyáyu (Love duet)
Act IV scene 2: Chur, chur! Kto govorít: ubíytsa? (Death of Boris)
Act IV scene 3: Deo, Gloria, Gloria (The Simpleton in the Kromy Forest)
Ruggero Raimondi (bass) – Boris Godunov; Vyacheslav Polozov (tenor) – Gregory/Dimitri; Paul Plishka (bass) – Pimen; Galina Vishnevskaya (soprano) – Marina; Nikita Storoyev (bass) – Rangoni; Kenneth Riegel (tenor) – Prince Shuisky; Matthew Adam Fish (treble) – Feodor; Catherine Dubosc (mezzo-soprano) – Xenia; Mira Zakai (mezzo-soprano) – Nurse; Nicolai Gedda (tenor) – Simpleton; Jacques Trigeal (tenor) – Lavitski; Michel Pastor (bass) – Chernikovsky.
The Chevy Chase Elementary School Chorus, The Oratorio Society of Washington, The Choral Arts Society of Washington, National Symphony Orchestra/Mstislav Rostropovich.
Recorded in July 1987, in the John F Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, Washington DC
WARNER APEX 2564 61520-2 [65:32]

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Boris Godunov is a work that, with its long, continuous scenes and monumental structure, does not lend itself easily to a highlights disc, especially if the intention is to give a fair cross-section of the opera. The producers of this compilation, drawn from a complete recording originally issued by Erato, wisely concentrate the choice on a few substantial chunks, covering most of Boris’s part. To this they add a couple of snippets that can stand on their own, out of context. It is very much the same concept as Chandos’s highlights disc in their "Opera in English" series, although the non-Boris excerpts differ from the ones on this Warner disc.

In effect the two discs are artist portraits of John Tomlinson and Ruggero Raimondi respectively, and since both recordings are based on the first version from 1868 in David Lloyd-Jones’ edition (i.e. Mussorgsky’s "original" without Rimsky-Korsakov’s tidying-ups) they invite to illuminating comparisons. First of all the two Borises are quite different voice types. Tomlinson’s is a true bass: dark, heavy, massive; Raimondi’s is much more baritonal: lighter, more nimble and smoother.

These differences are also, at least partly, mirrored in the conductors’ interpretation of the score, most of all in their choice of tempo for the Boris scenes. Paul Daniel (Tomlinson) is much slower; he needs 28 minutes for the Apartments scene whereas Rostropovich (Raimondi) takes only 25. There is a similar difference in the Death scene: Daniel 24½; Rostropovich 20.

Of course tempo is not everything and both versions offer valid impersonations of the ill-fated tsar, and while the ideal, as so often, is somewhere in between - neither is much off the mark. For listeners who crave the original language, Tomlinson is of course ruled out, although English works surprisingly well as a substitute for Russian, which I first discovered more than twenty years ago when I actually heard Tomlinson in this opera at the ENO.

Leaving the Chandos at that and concentrating on the Apex, it is apparent from the very first chords of the coronation scene that this is going to be a no-nonsense traversal of this powerful score. The chiming bells, the dark, threatening brass chords and the really punchy choral singing have you at once sitting up in your chair. Rostropovich has always been one of the most dynamic of musicians, whether as cellist, pianist or conductor and it is obvious that he relishes the pungent harmonies of Mussorgsky’s original. Tempos are, as I have already mentioned, fastish – the polonaise (track 4) is unusually lively – but "Slava" is never rigid: he knows where to hold back and as a whole, judging from these excerpts (I haven’t heard the complete recording) this is as good an interpretation as any of this many-faceted score.

Raimondi’s Boris is lyrical and warm, very human – and very beautiful. In many ways he reminds me of Kim Borg, the great Finnish bass of the 1950s and 1960s, who was also a great Boris. I learnt Boris’s music – or parts of it – from a DG recital with Russian bass arias sung by Borg. Hearing Raimondi I recognize much of the timbre, the warmth and even a lot of inflections from that Borg LP ... high praise. His second act monologue, "I stand supreme in power", to use David Lloyd-Jones’ English translation (halfway through track 2) is exquisitely done. Later in the same act, the so called ‘clock scene’, where Boris’s bad conscience makes him see ghosts, "Ugh! Give me air! I suffocate in here ..." (end of track 3). The terror, the desperation is depicted with utmost intensity. Compared to the legendary Chaliapin recording, Raimondi is not so overwhelmingly larger than life, but he expresses the same agony just as movingly but with smaller means.

The real highpoint of this score, and a challenge to any good singer-actor, is Boris’s death. This long monologue is sung with great restraint, softly and inwardly, until the very end, where the agitation becomes almost physically tangible – then a whispered "Forgive me" and then ... silence. An utterly moving portrayal of the tsar!

The other singers, good as many of them are, become more or less marginalized on a highlights disc like this, but some of them are worth a comment or two. Kenneth Riegel is an incisive Shuisky in the coronation scene and suitably oily in the second act scene with Boris (track 3). It is good to hear a "real" boy, not a fruity mezzo-soprano, as Feodor. Matthew Adam Fish sings very well in the nursery scene (track 2) where both Catherine Dubosc and Mira Zakai as Xenia and the old nurse, are expressive. As Marina we hear Rostropovich’s wife, Galina Vishnevskaya, who sounds remarkably fresh of voice, although it is obvious that this is an old singer. She was 61 when the recording was made and had retired from the opera stage several years earlier.

Vishnevskaya’s Dimitri in the love duet (track 5) is Vyacheslav Polozov, whose diamond-hard tenor is more suitable for cutting glass than expressing warmth in a love duet. It would probably have been a better idea to let Nicolai Gedda, who here in his 62nd year sings the Simpleton (track 7) with the same beauty of tone and intelligent phrasing as ever, take on the role. It’s one he had already recorded twice: first in 1952, the year of his debut at the Royal Opera in Stockholm and his very first complete recording, and then again in 1977, the first recording of the original score with Jerzy Semkow. He retained his superb voice very long indeed; in 1992, five years after this recording was made, I heard him at the Royal Opera in Stockholm, giving a full-length recital to celebrate his 40th year as an opera singer. He then sang a number of demanding arias: Lenski’s aria, the Pearl Fishers romance, the Flower Song from Carmen, Nemorino’s arias from L’Elisir d’amore. These were all delivered with the same lustre, the same power, the same beauty of voice as we had been used to hear on his 20, 30 and even 40 years old recordings. He still recorded as recently as 2002. Close brackets. Let me just mention that Paul Plishka is a strong Pimen in the Death Scene (track 6) with good feeling for the words but a little unsteady.

At budget price this disc is well worth having for Raimondi’s beautifully sung and deeply felt Boris and, as an extra bonus, for Gedda’s Simpleton. No texts are provided of course and the synopsis relates the story of the opera (which is good) but with no references to what is actually sung (which is less good). The choruses and the orchestra are excellent and the sound quality everything one could wish.

Göran Forsling

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