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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839–1881)
Boris Godunov (arr. & orch. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov) (1874)
Prologue, Scene 2 (The Square in the Moscow Kremlin): Long Live the Tsar Boris; Even as glory to the radiant sun; My soul is torn with anguish; Glory
Act II: I have attained the highest power; What do you want?; Mighty Lord …; It is not death that is hard to bear; God, how stifling it’s become!
Act IV, Scene 2: Boris Farewell to his Son and Death of Boris
George London (bass) – Boris Godunov; Mildred Allen (mezzo-soprano) – Fyodor, his son; Howard Fried (tenor) – Prince Vasily Ivanovich Shuisky; Stanley Kolk (tenor) – Boyal Khrushchyov
Columbia Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Thomas Schippers
rec. Manhattan Center, New York City, 23–27 March 1961. ADD
Pictures at an Exhibition  (1874) (orch. Maurice Ravel)
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy
rec. Town Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 21 April, 18 June 1966. ADD
SONY CLASSICAL 82876 78747 2 [69:58]
 

George London was a noted Wagnerian in Bayreuth and elsewhere. He was also a tremendous Scarpia in Tosca (recorded for Decca with Tebaldi and Del Monaco) but probably his best role, anyway his dream role for many years, was Boris Godunov. He first sang it in Vienna in 1950 to great success. Rudolf Bing attended the performance and engaged him for the role at the Metropolitan the following year – the first American to assume the role there. Ten years later he was the Tsar at the Bolshoi Theatre as the first ever non-Russian singer. Two years later he recorded the role with the Bolshoi under Alexander Melik-Pashaev, but before that Columbia made this highlights record in New York.
 
Conducted by the versatile Thomas Schippers we are in for a vital and incisive reading with impressive playing from the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. There is no denying the enthusiasm and force of the singing but other choruses have had a more integrated body of sound. This is of secondary importance, however, in a highlights disc. What counts is George London in the title part but Howard Fried as the oily Shuisky should be mentioned for a good effort, even though he makes his character more human than he deserves. London presents a many-sided portrait of the Tsar. He is noble in the first monologue (tr. 3), singing with admirably steady tone. I have attained the highest power (tr. 5) is a high-strung dramatic reading in the Chaliapin/Christoff mould. In the Farewell and Death scene (tr. 10 – 11) his identification is spine-chilling, ranging from wild shouts to stifled whispers and his farewell to his son is filled with warmth and sorrow. This is a reading that has been honed during performances through a decade and it gives a rounded picture of the Tsar even in this truncated form. I was greatly moved after his death and would have liked a longer silence before the next piece of music, the Promenade from Pictures at an Exhibition started. As it was the Philadelphia trumpets came as a slap in the face.
 
Once I had mentally changed over to the colourful kaleidoscopic panorama over Hartmann’s artistic world I was wholly captured. The reason was twofold: firstly it is always an adventure to return to the music as such, whether in Mussorgsky’s original drawing (piano = black and white) or Ravel’s painting (water-colours = shimmering like the rainbow); secondly this must be one of the best readings preserved on records. “The French watchmaker” is a soubriquet sometimes applied to Ravel, implying the superb technical proficiency but also a certain chilly distance. With Ormandy at the helm in music he clearly relishes, the whole work unfolds as a declaration of love to Hartmann. Precision – yes; listen to Tuileries (tr. 17) or Ballet des petits poussins dans leurs coques (tr. 20). Bydlo (tr. 18), the Ox-cart with its enormous wheels is almost visible through the crescendo-diminuendo conveying the impression of a Doppler-effect. And the melancholy feeling of Il vecchio castello (tr. 15), ‘The Old Castle’, is no mere technique. This is warm music. There are of course powerful sections in this music – the final ‘Great Gate of Kiev’ especially well-known – but much of it is painted in light transparent colours. Hartmann mostly expressed himself in water-colours and Ravel has ingenuously striven for the same kind of translucency. Ormandy, a master of orchestral balance, makes Ravel’s colours shine warmer than ever, not least through the woodwind playing, precise but con amore. Concerning the Great Gate it was only a design and never erected, so Ravel probably painted it as it might have been. Comparisons are unnecessary. Theodore Kuchar’s fairly recent effort on Naxos is a splendid achievement (see review) and has tremendous power and colour but the greater refinement of Ormandy and the Philadelphians now relegates it to second best.
 
The sound is clean and full with a wide stereo-image, as was the norm in some camps in the 1960s. Listening through headphones one almost felt trapped in the middle of the orchestra, but it was undoubtedly thrilling. Through the ordinary speakers I got a well-integrated sound with lots of tiny details audible without being especially highlighted. The Boris excerpts although five years older also sound fine though marginally less sophisticated.
 
The booklet has an article by George London himself, reprinted from the liner notes for the Bolshoi recording of Boris. There is also some short background on Pictures and a step-by-step guide to the walk through the memorial exhibition.
 
At mid-price this is a find: a truly great version of Pictures and one of the great Borises at the height of his powers. Not to be missed.
 
Göran Forsling
 
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