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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839–1881)
Khovanshchina (1886)
Boris Freidkov (bass) – Prince Ivan Khovansky; Ivan Nechayev (tenor) – Prince Andrey Khovansky; Mark Reizen (bass) – Dosifey; Vladimir Ulyanov (tenor) – Prince Vasily Golitsin; Ivan Shaskov (baritone) – Shalovity; Yakov Mishenko (tenor) – The Scribe; Lavrenty Yaroshenko (bass) – Kuzka; Vasily Tikhi (tenor) – Streshnev; Ivan Yashugin (bass) – First Strelyets; Andrey Atlantov (bass) – Second Strelyets; Sofya Preobrazhenskaya (mezzo) – Marfa; Nina Serval (soprano) – Susanna; Valentina Volokitina (soprano) – Emma
Kirov Chorus and Orchestra, Leningrad/Boris Khaikin
Recorded in Leningrad, the Soviet Union, 1946
Appendix A: Three extracts from Khovanshchina

Act 2: Marfa’s Divination
Nadezhda Obukhova (mezzo) Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra/I Steinberg (rec. 1944)
Act 3: Song of Marfa
Nadezhda Obukhova (mezzo) with orchestra (rec. 1948)
Shaklovity’s aria
Pavel Andreyev (baritone) with orchestra (rec. 1937?)
Appendix B: A selection of Mussorgsky songs

Song of the flea
Mark Reizen (bass) with piano (rec. 1946)
The seminarist
Mark Reizen (bass), Abram Makarov (piano) (rec. 1947)
Hebrew song; Tell me, gentle maiden
Sofya Preobrazhenskaya (mezzo), Abram Meierovich (piano) (rec. 1951)
Trepak (from "Songs and dances of death")
Feodor Chaliapin (bass), Orchestra/Lawrance Collingwood (rec. London 1929)
Gopak
Igor Gorin (baritone), orchestra/Wilfred Pelletier (rec. c. 1939)
The banks of the Don; Forgotten
Igor Gorin (baritone), Max Rabinowitsch (piano) (rec. 1939)
The he-goat; Forgotten; Darling Savishna
Vladimir Rosing (tenor), Myers Foggin (piano) (rec. 1935)
Night; Where are you, little star?
Mascia Predit (soprano), Gerald Moore (piano) (rec. in London 1950)
Reissue Producer and Restoration Engineer: Ward Marston
NAXOS 8.111124-26 [3 CDs: 64:39 + 70:02 + 77:57]

Mussorgsky never managed to finish Khovanshchina, although he worked on it for eight years. Long periods of alcoholism and illness prevented him from composing and what was left behind when he passed away was completed and orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov. It took another five years after the composer’s death before the work was premiered. Although never established as a standard work in the way Boris Godunov has, it is still such a fascinating drama that it returns to the opera houses fairly frequently. During the 20th century it became obvious that Rimsky-Korsakov’s performing version had smoothed out much of Mussorgsky’s highly original and bold harmonies. Several attempts have been made to recreate Mussorgsky’s initial ideas, and what today is performed is Shostakovich’s orchestration, often with Stravinsky’s ending. This is the case with the two most recommendable recordings on the market, Abbado on DG and Gergiev on Philips. The only performance I have seen live was at the Finnish National Opera in Helsinki a couple of years ago, where conductor Mikko Franck had composed a further new ending, which worked well. (See review by Bill Kenny at Seen and Heard).

The present recording, made back in 1946 utilizes the Rimsky version and so isn’t quite comparable to the others. Still it has much to offer and, although Rimsky-Korsakov’s completions have streamlined the music, it is still a highly personal and deeply moving work, firmly rooted in old Russian history and music. The recording date hints that we have to expect murky sound and bad definition, but that is far from the truth. On the contrary I was positively surprised when I started listening to the atmospheric, chamber music like introduction. This is well caught with every instrumental detail laid bare and an almost stereophonic separation. Ward Marston must have worked wonders with the original 78s but it also seems that they must have been in extremely good fettle. The playing under the legendary Khaikin is splendid and the Persian dances in Act 4 (CD 2 track 11) are done with real verve.

Less enticing is the choral singing. There is no denying the authenticity of the performances; the singers must have had this music in their veins. However the actual sound is less than ingratiating. This is a matter of different choral traditions: the Slavonic tradition aiming more at expressiveness and force but caring very little about vocal timbre. There is a great deal of wobbling and shrillness and none of the blend and equalization we have come to expect in the West. When as a youngster I listened to the legendary Don Cossacks I had the same feeling – and still have: it sounds under-rehearsed, but of course it isn’t. Readers who want a smoother delivery should be warned, and since the chorus plays a central part in this opera it is a significant warning. Still this is only one side of the coin. There is tremendous feeling whenever they appear and when singing softly the Kirov chorus can produce really beautiful sounds. Try the Streltsy chorus in Act 3 (CD 2 track 8) to hear what I mean.

These reservations also apply to some of the solo singing, especially the high voices. The tenors generally have metallic timbres and quite wide vibratos. Best of them is Ivan Nechayev as Prince Andrey Khovansky, who is a real character all through the opera. In the last act he finds a warmer tone to compensate for the aggressiveness earlier on. The two sopranos are more or less comprimarios, so their shrieks are a liability. Marfa is one of the truly great female roles in Russian opera and Sofya Preobrazhenskaya has many of the qualities one ideally wants: a fruity, vibrant voice with a warm timbre. She is actually more contralto than mezzo and in some places her vibrato is also a mite too generous. This is however a classy voice and she appears deeply involved. Try her Act 2 aria (CD 1 track 13), the even more moving episode from Act 3 (CD 2 track 2) and in the final act (CD 3 tracks 4-6).

The deeper male voices are all good but some of them display a certain throatiness, that to some extent has to do with the language. Not even Chaliapin was wholly free from it. Boris Freidkov as Prince Ivan Khovansky also has it but this is a great voice, big and warm and it has very little of the baritonal timbre that many basses adopt in the upper register.

Still better, and actually the main reason for owning this recording, is Mark Reizen as Dosifey. Here is a voice – and a singer! – to challenge all the great names of the last century. He seems to have an unlimited supplies of power and of vocal colour. He ranges from a lyrical high baritone to a super dramatic basso profundo. He is keen with his words. All in all, one of the most complete opera basses ever recorded. His first act solo (CD 1 track 11) is as good evidence as any, the act 5 aria (CD 3 track 1) even more so.

Khovanshchina is a monumental work, more epic than dramatic maybe, but within its limitations powerful and thought-provoking. The present version is valuable as it preserves a performing style with its roots in the 19th century but today in the main lost. It also gives today’s listeners the opportunity to hear a couple of the greatest Russian singers of the era, first and foremost Mark Reizen. The sound quality is remarkably good with the solo voices well to the fore, and the orchestra still making its mark.

As so often with these reissues Naxos offer a substantial appendix, in this case two: the first one with three separately recorded excerpts from Khovanshchina, two of them with the great Nadezhda Obukhova as Marfa: a brighter voice than Preobrazhenskaya’s with a more controlled vibrato and an impressive chest register, singing with restrained intensity in the first excerpt; mellower in the extremely beautiful third act aria. Pavel Andreyev as the chief of police sings with a Chaliapin-like timbre and delivery but is a bit strained. There are also some mechanical bumps at the beginning of the track.

The second appendix contains a selection of Mussorgsky’s songs. Here we meet Mark Reizen again in Song of the flea where he lightens his voice remarkably and is wonderfully flexible. His diabolic laughter is also priceless. In The seminarist he is again the darkly imposing basso profundo. Preobrazhenskaya, recorded five years after the complete opera, is actually lighter of voice here and sings a very moving, inward Hebrew song. Chaliapin’s Trepak is of course a legendary recording with all the fine nuances he had in his armoury. Igor Gorin’s high baritone, not unlike Hvorostovsky’s, also has colours galore and he is recorded with stunning realism back in 1939. Vladimir Rosing was another expressive singer who here inflects the songs so realistically that one can almost see his facial expressions. Listen to The he-goat! (CD 3 track 18). Finally Mascia Predit, rather dimly recorded, gives deeply-felt renderings of Night and especially Where are you, little star? with sensitive accompaniments by Gerald Moore.
A first recommendation for the opera alone has to be Abbado on DG or, perhaps even better, on DVD with practically the same cast and at a fraction of the CD price. (See John Leeman’s review). But as a complement this Naxos set is a good buy, primarily for Reizen and Preobrazhenskaya and for the substantial appendix.

Göran Forsling

 

 



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