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Modest MUSSORSKY (1839-1881)
Boris Godunov - Opera in Prologue and Four Acts (1869-74) [223:31]
Martti Talvela (bass) – Boris Godunov; Nicolai Gedda (tenor) – Grigory/Dimitti; Leonard Mróz (bass) – Pimen; Bożena Kinasz (mezzo) – Marina; Andrej Hiolski (baritone) – Rangoni/Shchelkalov; Aage Haugland (bass) – Varlaam; Kazimerz Pustelak (tenor) – Missail; Bohdan Paprocki (tenor) – Shiusky; Wiera Baniewicz (mezzo) – Fydor; Halina Łukomska (soprano) – Xenia; Bożena Brun-Barańska (contralto) – Nurse; Stefania Toczyska (mezzo) – Hostess of the Inn; Paulos Raptis (tenor) – The Simpleton; Kazimierz Sergei – Police Officer; Jan Góralski (baritone) – Boyar Khruschov; Włodzimierz Zalewski (baritone) – Mitukh; Władysław Juroszek, Roman Dyllus, Joachim Luks, Pioth Komarek, Jan Harazin, Eugeniusz Jędrych – Boyars and Jesuits; Zofia Romanowska – First Peasant Woman; Maria Ćwiakowska – Second Peasant
Polish Radio Chorus of Krakow; Boy’s Chorus from Krakow Philharmonic Chorus; Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestra/Jerzy Semkow
rec. August 1976, Katowice, Poland.
Synopsis included but no text or translation
EMI CLASSICS 5091782 [3 CDs: 73:55 + 73:38 + 75:58] 

Experience Classicsonline

This was a pioneering set when first issued as it did not use the version of the text revised and to some degree rewritten by Rimsky-Korsakov. Instead it made use of a version which aimed to be closer to the composer’s original text. This is however by no means a straightforward matter in relation to this opera, not least because it exists essentially in two very different forms. The first version completed in 1869 comprised seven scenes, ending with the death of Boris. A much longer revised version was published in 1874, adding two scenes set in Poland (Act 3) and finishing with a scene in a forest glade near Kromy. The latter replaces a scene set before St Basil’s Cathedral which had preceded Boris’ death in the 1869 version. Somewhat confusingly the present recording includes both the St Basil’s scene and the scene which replaced it with Boris’ death in between them and with some changes to reduce repetition. Given the very complex history of revisions of this opera I would hesitate to say that this is unquestionably wrong, but was surely a missed opportunity not to record one of the two main versions as it stood rather than producing the present hybrid. In the event that opportunity was left to the simultaneous recordings made later of both versions by the Kirov under Gergiev which enable the listener to get a much better understanding of the character and merits of each.

To that extent the present recording has been left behind but it does nonetheless have substantial virtues of its own. These are essentially those of general fidelity to the chosen musical text together with the negative virtue of none of the very large cast being inadequate for their part – by no means a negligible matter in an opera with so many named parts and of a general lack of the kind of larger than life vocal acting which put me off the opera for many years. Martti Talvela is a suitably commanding Boris and Nicolai Gedda sings with great beauty as Dimitri. At the same time neither they nor most of the remainder of the cast give the appearance of being particularly engaged in the drama. Worst of all, neither does the conductor, Jerzy Semkow, who fails to give the work the forward momentum that it needs if it is not to seem very long indeed.

EMI have not made the listener’s work easy. This is a long and complex opera and the non-Russian speaker needs to be able to follow it in detail to have a real understanding of what is going on. The detailed track-by-track synopsis is very well produced but is no substitute for a proper bilingual libretto. Although EMI promise this at their website I have been unable to find it there, and although you may be able to find other libretti of the work these may not necessarily be appropriate for the edition used on these discs. Under these circumstances and given the undramatic nature of the performance I regret that an undeniably worthy attempt at recording one of opera’s great masterpieces can only be given a muted recommendation at best.

John Sheppard


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