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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Khovanshchina – opera in five Acts (1871-1880), revised by Rimsky-Korsakov [160:43]
Boris Freidkov (Prince Ivan Khovansky, bass), Ivan Nechayev (Prince Andrey Khovansky, tenor), Mark Reizen (Dosifey, bass), Vladimir Ulyanov (Prince Vasily Golitsin, tenor), Ivan Shaskov (Shaklovity, baritone), Yakov Mishenko (The scribe, tenor), Lavrenty Yaroshenko (Kuzka, bass), Vasily Tikhi (Streshnev, tenor), Ivan Yashugin (First Strelyets, bass), Andrey Atlantov (Second Strelyets, bass), Sofya Preobrazhenskaya (Marfa, mezzo), Nina Serval (Susanna, soprano), Valentina Volokitina (Emma, soprano)
Kirov Chorus and Orchestra, Leningrad/Boris Khaikin
Recorded 1946 in Leningrad
Appendix A: Khovanshchina: Three extracts

Powers mysterious [05:22]
Nadezhda Obukhova (mezzo), Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra/I. Steinberg, 1944
I ran through the meadows and marshes [03:53]
Nadezhda Obukhova, with orchestra, 1948
All is quiet in the Streltsy camp [04:53]
Pavel Andreyev (tenor), with orchestra, ?1937
Appendix B: A selection of Mussorgsky’s songs

Mephistopheles’ song in the Auerbach cella: Song of the Flea [03:05]
Mark Reizen (bass), with piano, 1946
The Seminarist [04:48]
Mark Reizen, Abram Makarov (piano), 1947
Hebrew Song [02:53], Tell me, gentle maiden [02:37]
Sofya Preobrazhenskaya (mezzo, Abram Meierovich), 1951
Trepak (from Songs and Dances of Death) [04:24]
Feodor Chaliapin (bass), orchestra/Lawrence Collingwood, London 1929
Gopak [03:09]
Igor Gorin (bass), orchestra/Wilfred Pelletier, c.1939
The banks of the Don [1:53], Forgotten [02:15]
Igor Gorin, Max Rabinowitsch (piano), 1939
The He-goat [02:34], Forgotten [02:09], Darling Savishna [01:10]
Vladimir Rosing (baritone), Myers Foggin (piano)
Night [03:42], Where are you, little star? [03:57]
Mascia Predit (soprano), Gerald Moore (piano), 1950
CD restoration by Ward Marston
NAXOS 8.111124-26 [3 CDs: 64:39 + 70:02 + 77:57]

There is sometimes an impression that these old recordings hark back to the days when they did things properly. In some cases early recordings do indeed enshrine interpretations by performers close to the composer himself, but in the case of Mussorgsky the "old" tradition doesn’t help us all that much.

The problem is Rimsky-Korsakov. It is true that there can be no "ur-Khovanshchina" as there is an "ur-Boris", since Mussorgsky did not quite complete the work and in any case left it unorchestrated, so whatever happens, we are going to hear a few parts plus the entire orchestration done by somebody else. Rimsky-Korsakov was first off the mark, but it became increasingly evident over the years that he had bowdlerized the original concept, just as he did with Boris. In the absence of an authentic score, modern productions tend to go for Shostakovich’s version, sometimes with a few adjustments, plus an ending provided by Stravinsky for Diaghilev in 1913. If not the pioneer, Claudio Abbado was certainly the conductor who put this version on the musical map; with both a CD and a DVD version (with different casts), this is one of the select works in which Abbado has carved out a niche for himself so overwhelmingly as to silence all opposition. Estimable versions by Tchakarov and Gergiev have made relatively little impact. So if you want to hear "Khovanshchina" at its best, it is to Abbado or perhaps Gergiev (the Tchakarov, with Ghiaurov, Milcheva and Ghiuselev, doesn’t seem to be available at the moment) that you must turn.

The earlier, Rimskyfied versions, then, refer back to a mistaken tradition, though they may contain notable individual performances. Not that there were many. The present version, presumably the first, was followed by a Bolshoi recording under Vassily Nebolsin in 1949, again with Mark Reizen as Dosifey. Some time in the 1950s Decca recorded the work in Belgrade as part of a series of Russian operas set down there – in those cold-war times, Tito’s Yugoslavia was about the closest a Western company could get to an authentic Russian opera house. These Belgrade recordings tended to be seen as stop-gaps even in their day, and I am not aware of any attempt to revive them in the CD era. In 1974, near the close of his career, Boris Khaikin returned to the work, this time with the Bolshoi and a cast including Irena Arkhipova as Marfa. He remained faithful to the Rimsky version. The epoch of Rimsky versions was closed by a poorly-received 1976 recording from Sofia under Atanas Margaritov. The presence of Milcheva and Ghiuselev in the cast might lend it some interest, but they repeated their roles under Tchakarov ten years later. There are a few live versions around, official or not, one of which I shall return to.

The principal reason for acquiring this set might well be the Dosifey of Mark Reizen, a bass of granitic power and magisterial authority. It is indeed a magnificent assumption. What he doesn’t quite have is that extra dimension, that human warmth, that enveloping, liquid depth that makes you think you could dive into the sound, that was the unique possession of the Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff. It may seem surprising that this greatly loved singer, widely seen as the heir of Chaliapin and surely the greatest of post-war Russian-type basses, was asked to record Boris twice over (and also all Mussorgsky’s songs) but, so far as I can make out, never set down Dosifey. However, a 1958 radio production from Rome under Artur Rodzinski has been marketed on CD by Video Arts. I had better say, in case any readers seek this out, that my own comparisons have been made with a taping of my own from one of RAI’s periodic re-broadcasts, so I can’t give any advice as to the quality of the Video Arts transfer except to say that a couple of extracts heard courtesy of Amazon suggest it is cleaner and less distorted than mine. If it’s all up to this standard, it can be safely bought. There can be no doubt, in any case, that Christoff produces a range of vocal colouring and dynamic shading which never fails to fascinate, and by his side Reizen, impressive as he is, seems monochrome.

However, Khovanshchina is not Dosifey’s opera the way Boris Godunov is Boris’s opera; the two Khovanskys, father and son, Golitsin, Shaklovity and above all Marfa all have important roles, and this is also in many ways an ensemble opera. But I have to say that, while the present set testifies to a generally high standard at the Kirov, voice for voice I’d go for Rodzinski for a "historical" Khovanshchina. Sofya Preobrazhenskaya is undoubtedly an asset here, a powerful Russian mezzo, as ringingly secure in her upper notes as she is sonorous in her chest tones. It is impassioned singing as well as secure, yet I find more shading in Rodzinski’s Irene Companez. A rather mysterious singer, this; Rodzinski must have admired her since she had sung in Alexander Nevsky for him four months earlier, also in Rome (this has been issued by Stradivarius). For EMI she sang the small role of La Cieca in the 1959 Callas Gioconda. She also sang in a version of Vivaldi’s "Juditha Triumphans" recorded under Alberto Zedda with the Milan Angelicum forces and apparently "published in 1995". However, since the cast also includes Oralia Dominguez, and the Angelicum orchestra was disbanded before 1995 anyway, I suggest it may date from no later than the early 1960s. And after that she faded from view.

On the whole, Russia seems to have been better endowed with basses and baritones than with tenors. Boris Freidkov is an amply sonorous Ivan Khovansky. Seasoned opera buffs may experience more excitement at hearing that Mario Petri, a magnificent Boris in his own right, takes the part under Rodzinski, while the two tenors of the Rome performance, Amedeo Berdini and Mirto Picchi, stalwarts of many an operatic venture in the great days of the RAI, prove the virtues of solid Italian bel canto training over their somewhat nasal Russian counterparts. Similar comparisons extend to the minor roles, the Emma here being very squeaky compared with Iolanda Mancini.

But perhaps the real reason for the superior shading and expressiveness of the Rome performance lies in the conducting. The Naxos booklet rightly refers to Khaikin as a "distinguished" conductor, and he is certainly nothing less. Everything is firmly under control, each act is shaped clearly, every phrase is carefully considered. But Rodzinski was a "great" conductor, and it shows. Take Act 1 Scene 1: the outburst at track 4 is whipped up a little more with Rodzinski (Khaikin 02:00, Rodzinski 01:50), whereas at track 5 Rodzinski holds back with impressive deliberation (Khaikin 0:53, Rodzinsky 0:58) only to plunge ahead at track 6 (Khaikin 04:18, Rodzinski 03:40). Taken individually, in each case the music seems just that little bit more effective at Rodzinski’s tempi; taken as a whole it amounts to a more varied and imaginative narration of the events. Contrary to his reputation as a martinet, Rodzinski is more often slower than the reverse. In the scene where Prince Andrey attempts to seduce Emma he gives the singers time to make use of their words, extending Khaikin’s 04:09 to 05:22, while in the Persian Dances he extracts, from an orchestra which is theoretically inferior to Khaikin’s Kirov band, a performance which rises from extreme sultriness to galvanising passion with a magic that even Stokowski might not have disowned. Khaikin sounds academic by comparison.

In the last act, however, Khaikin comes into his own, in the sense that he is offering something quite different, rather than a slightly less good realization of a basically similar idea. From the outset, in Dosifey’s great solo, he has his strings meandering almost without nuance, the sort of tense numbness we know from several Shostakovich openings; Symphonies 10 and 11 most notably. Rodzinski plays this music more swiftly, with hairpin crescendos and diminuendos and more expressive vibrato. Thereafter, both conductors are true to their conception, Khaikin allowing the final tragedy to build up slowly, inexorably, Rodzinski pressing on dramatically. And I’m afraid to say that in the interests of taut drama, Rodzinski snips several bits out along the way. He is six minutes shorter than Khaikin in this act; I’d say the faster tempi and cuts contribute to the difference in about equal measure. Though, as a Westerner, I perhaps thrill more to Rodzinski, I wonder if Khaikin’s bleakness is not closer to Mussorgsky’s own vision.

All the same, for a historical recording to supplement one of the modern Shostakovich/Stravinsky versions, I’d go for Rodzinski; after all, if it’s Khaikin who interests you, you will want his final thoughts, in stereo. But there are other drawbacks with Rodzinski. I’ve mentioned the cuts in Rodzinski’s last act, but in fact only Act One goes unscathed; at 138:33 for the whole opera this does have the advantage that it all goes snugly onto two CDs, but some of the cuts are swingeing and involve Dosifey’s and Marfa’s music as well as the more expendable characters - Susanna disappears altogether. The other drawback is that it is sung in Italian. But if the only extant recording of Boris Christoff singing this music has him singing it in Italian, I feel that room should be found on our shelves for it nonetheless. True enthusiasts will want Reizen as well, of course. The actual recording of the 1946 version is amazingly good; we are used to the idea that Russian Melodiya LPs sounded ghastly until at least the 1960s; this has a bit of distortion, it’s true, but the voices are well caught without stridency - careful work from Ward Marston, no doubt - and the orchestral sound is generally full and clear.

Though Naxos have been obliged to add a third CD, they certainly haven’t wasted it. After the 26 minutes of Act 5 we get two appendixes. The first has Marfa’s two major arias plus Shaklovity’s sung by other notable singers of the day; Obukhova has a style similar to Preobrazhenskaya’s. Then we have a series of Mussorgsky songs. First, there are two each from Reizen and Preobrazhenskaya - I had promised myself that by the end of this review I would be able to type this name without checking it letter by letter, but there’s my first New Year’s resolution gone up in smoke - both more communicative in the intimate circumstances of having just a pianist to accompany them than on the great operatic stage. Then an extract from the great Chaliapin is followed by three less well-known singers.

At this point I must complain that Naxos, having provided if not a libretto to the opera, at least a very helpful synopsis, plus an introduction to the opera and the major artists heard in it, now leave us high and dry. Mussorgsky’s "realistic" song style doesn’t lend itself to listening as pure music as does, say, Tchaikovsky’s, where there is much to enjoy even if you have no idea what the words are saying. In this instance, the singers can all be heard characterising like mad, and it would be lovely to know what it’s all about. And also to know who the singers are! From the internet, I can give a modicum of information:

IGOR GORIN was born in Poland in 1904, studied in Vienna and emigrated to the USA in 1933. He retired from singing in 1966 and taught voice at the University of Arizona till his death in 1982.

VLADIMIR ROSING was born in St. Petersburg in 1890. A man of many parts he is variously listed as tenor, bass (he seems to be a bass-baritone here), impresario, producer and conductor. By 1915 he was in London, doing a bit of all these things, in 1921 he went to the USA and became director of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. In 1930 he was back in England organizing the British Music-Drama Company, with Albert Coates as Music Director. He died in Los Angeles in 1963. True to his larger-than-life image, he is the most histrionic of the artists here. To my Western ears, Nicolai Gedda proved that "The He-goat" can be characterized adequately without sacrificing musicality and voice production, but maybe it sounds different if you understand the words.

MASCIA PREDIT was born in Latvia in 1912 and seems to be still alive. A sweet soprano in 1950, by 1971 she had dropped to the deep mezzo whose mournful tones can be heard singing "Deserted Beach" in Visconti’s film "Death in Venice".

Christopher Howell

see also review by Goran Forsling

 

 



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