This is, of course,
the Great Russian Bass Roles with ‘bonus
tracks’ ... and substantial bonuses
they are, too. But gripes about product
description apart, this disc could serve
as an excellent introduction to the
wonderful Boris Christoff, caught between
1949 and 1954.
The two Prince Igor
arias that open the present recital
reveal an artist entirely at home here,
from the joys of Galitsky’s Aria to
Kontchak’s attempts to put his prisoner
(Igor) at ease. In both, accompaniments
are astonishingly on-the-ball. Christoff’s
pitching is magnificent, his breath
control astonishing (the long note at
around 4’50 in Kontchak’s aria, for
example). And just how natural is the
famous melody from the ‘Polovtsian Dances’
brass comes to the fore in Rimsky’s
‘Song of the Viking Guest’, dark and
superbly blended against seething, brooding
strings, while heart-felt lyricism is
the order of the day for Prince Gremin’s
Aria (‘Everyone knows love on earth’)
from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.
As we approach Boris,
we approach core Christoff territory.
The positively outrageous orchestra
that begins Varlaam’s ‘In the town off
Kazan’ sets the scene for a portrayal
from Christoff that is full of character
– not least in the final joyful shouts.
The next two tracks take us to the heart
of Boris, the Monologue and the
'Farewell and Death'. For the Monologue,
Christoff and Dobrowen (with the French
National Radio Orchestra here), keep
things moving to telling effect. Christoff’s
legato is without parallel and he can
‘float’ his voice memorably. Even though
Dobrowen keeps it moving along, it remains
breathtaking. Fear and (later) utmost
delicacy are the defining characteristics
of the Farewell and Death. Note that
Regis give a timing for this of 1’51.
It is of course 11’51 – no-one, but
no-one, snuffs it in opera that quickly.
Christoff is spine-tingling
in this excerpt, his cries of ‘Boze’
completely believable; the chorus (Covent
Garden) is also magnificent.
And so to Verdi. Silva’s
‘Che mai veggio! … Infin che un brando
vindice’ (Ernani) is heartfelt,
Christoff’s confidence of line nothing
short of magnificent. More famous perhaps
is King Philip’s aria from Don Carlo
where Christoff has competition in the
form of an almost literally singing
solo cello. Christoff gives us despair
rather than self-pity. This is very
profound and very, very touching, and
technically well-nigh perfect (listen
to Christoff’s focused line at ‘Dormirò
sol …’). Superb.
‘Ave Signor!’ (Boito)
provides relief in the form of patter.
Both Boito excerpts are dramatically
true. Perhaps only the Gounod gives
cause for slight complaint – the surface
of the disc Regis has used seems crackly.
The Mussorgsky ‘Field-Marshal
Death’ is the only track accompanied
by piano; with Gerald Moore at the stool,
who’s complaining? The final ‘Song of
the Volga Boatmen’ is surely known to
everybody. Christoff sings it as if
the very World itself is on his shoulders!
Magnificent. If anyone
needs an introduction to the great Boris
Christoff, this should be it.