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Boris Christoff
CD 1 Italian Opera
CD 2 Russian Opera

CD 3 Russian Songs and Sacred Music
Boris Christoff (bass) with piano acc, orchestras and choir
rec. 1949 – 1955
NIMBUS PRIMA VOCE NI 796 1/3
[3 CDs: 70:19 + 71:56 + 72:25]


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Boris Christoff
CD 1 [70:19] Italian Opera
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 – 1791)
Don Giovanni
1. Madamina! Il catalogo e questo [5:35]
Antonio CALDARA (1670 – 1736)
2. Come raggio di sol [3:12]
Vincenzo BELLINI (1801 – 1835)
Norma
3. Ite sul colle [10:13]
La sonnambula
4. Il mulino! Il fonte! … Vi ravviso [5:00]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813 – 1901)
Nabucco
5. Sperate, o figli! … D’Egitto la sui lidi [4:58]
6. Oh chi piange? … Del futuro nel bujo discerno [4:47]
La forza del destino
7. Il santo nome di Dio [6:54]
Simon Boccanegra
8. A te l’estremo addio … Il lacerate spirito [5:53]
Ernani
9. Che mai veggio! … Infelice … L’offeso onor [6:50]
Don Carlo
10. Ella giammai m’amo … Dormiro sol [9:14]
Arrigo BOITO (1847 – 1918)
Mefistofele
11. Ave Signor! [3:55]
12. Son lo spirito che nega [3:48]

CD 2 [71:56]
Russian Opera
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839 – 1881)
Boris Godunov
1. Prologue: Coronation Scene [10:53]
2. Act 1. Pimen’s monologue [5:52]
3. Act 1. Varlaam’s song [2:33]
4. Act 2. Boris’s monologue [6:05]
5. Act 2. Clock scene [3:58]
6. Act 4. Farewell and Death of Boris [11:46]
Khovanshchina
7. Dosifey’s aria [6:22]
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844 – 1908)
Sadko
8. Song of the Viking Merchant [3:46]
The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh
9. O vain illusion [4:27]
Pyotr TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 – 1893)
Eugene Onegin
10. Everyone knows love on earth [4:55]
Alexander BORODIN (1833 – 1887)
Prince Igor
11. Prince Galitsky’s aria [3:52]
12. Konchak’s aria [7:23]

CD 3 [72:25]
Russian Songs and Sacred Music
Alexander SEROV (1820 – 1871)
1. Shrove Tuesday [4:39]
Traditional Songs
2. Song of the lumberjacks [5:00]
3. The Bandore [3:29]
4. Down Peterskaya Street [2:13]
5. Going down the Volga [3:40]
6. The lonely autumn night [5:22]
7. Psalm 137. By the waters of Babylon [5:25]
Mikhail STROKINE (1832 – 1887)
8. Prayer to St. Simeon [2:36]
Pavel CHESNOKOV (1877 – 1944)
9. Lord have mercy on our people [4:00]
Trad.
10. The song of the twelve robbers [5:56]
Alexander GRECHANINOV (1864 – 1956)
11. Litany [6:02]
Trad.
12. Siberian prisoner’s song [4:17]
Modest MUSSORGSKY
Songs and Dances of Death
13. No 4 Field-Marshal Death [4:55]
14. The Grave [3:44]
15. Softly the spirit flies up to heaven [3:15]
LISHKIN (? - ?)
16. She mocked [3:32]
Trad
17. Song of the Volga boatmen [4:20]

 

Some later recordings of Boris Christoff, expressive and dramatically convincing though they invariably are, can be vocally rather gruff. On these early examples there is very little of that characteristic. The overriding impression is, on the contrary, of an uncommonly sonorous voice with brilliant top notes and a beautiful pianissimo that few other basses have ever been able to muster. Where he sometimes momentarily falters is in the lowest reaches of the voice. He has all the notes that are required but they can sometimes be weak and even slightly unsteady. What impresses most of all is his ability to go to the core of the music, whether it be an aria or a simple song. Like his contemporary baritone colleague – and brother-in-law – Tito Gobbi he was a unique singing-actor, and created a number of deeply penetrating portraits of some of the great bass roles.

The first disc in this volume is devoted to Italian opera. It gives a rare opportunity to hear him in a Mozart role. Considering his histrionic powers one would expect his Leporello to be callous and cynical. It isn’t. This is a man-servant with a heart of gold and his warm reading of the catalogue aria leads us to believe that he feels compassion for poor Elvira. Well, there is a hint of a mocking laughter near the end, but that’s all.

The Caldara aria, with Gerald Moore at the piano, is sung with restraint and honeyed tone. It is hard to believe that this finely honed reading comes from a man with such tremendous vocal resources.

The following six tracks are from a 1955 recital, recorded in Rome with the always responsive Vittorio Gui at the helm of the orchestra and chorus of the Rome Opera. The aria from Norma, preceded by almost 3½ minutes orchestral introduction, is monumental with the male chorus really on their toes. The Sonnambula aria has similarities to Chaliapin’s recording but is warmer, though maybe less elegant than Siepi’s. As Zaccaria in Nabucco he has authority and sings with unerring dramatic intensity. In Il santo nome from La forza del destino my favourite recording has always been Ezio Pinza’s from the late 1920s. Christoff’s reading may be deeper but Pinza’s noble tone still wins the day, if only by a hair’s breadth. Fiesco’s aria from Simon Boccanegra has the nobility that may be lacking in the Forza excerpt but his lowest notes are a bit sketchy.

The four remaining items on CD 1 are all from his earliest recording period, 1949 – 1951. The brilliance in the Ernani aria is truly glorious and there is ‘go’ in the cabaletta. Karajan and the Philharmonia provide ideally refined background for Filippo’s monologue from Don Carlo – a reading that few have surpassed. He recorded the opera complete twice – first in the mid-1950s in the four-act version and then in the early 1960s in the five-act version – both times with Gabriele Santini conducting. The later of them, on DG, was my introduction to this opera and Christoff’s Filippo is still the one that looms in my memory. However I have to admit nowadays that his reading then was a bit cruder than on the earlier one. Best of all, though, is the version with Karajan, on this disc – inward and deeply moving. The two arias from Mefistofele are vital and outgoing with virtuoso playing from the Philharmonia.

Filippo was one of Christoff’s signature roles, but he is even more strongly connected with the title role in Boris Godunov, which he also recorded twice. In fact he also sang both Pimen and Varlaam on both sets. On CD 2 we get some substantial excerpts from the first recording, conducted by Issay Dobrowen. It should be noted, though, that only tracks 1, 4 and 5 are from the complete set. Pimen’s and Varlaam’s solos as well as The Death of Boris were recorded separately a couple of years earlier. In each of the numbers he surpasses all the existing competition, possibly bar Chaliapin, whose Boris was of similar status. Both singers’ readings are necessary listening for anyone who wants to come to grips with this ill-fated Tsar. The depth of feeling and insight is almost unbearable. Masterly is the only word for it. He also makes the most of the other Russian arias. I learnt these – and also most of the Boris Godunov excerpts – through a DG recording with the great Finnish Bass Kim Borg in the mid-1960s, but good though he is – and I couldn’t resist a rehearing of some of them – he can’t quite challenge Christoff. The latter has more face. It should be said that a practically identical programme of Russian arias – these same recordings – was issued just about a year ago on EMI’s GROC label and readers who have already invested in that issue may hesitate about getting the present issue. The Italian programme is, to my knowledge, harder to come by separately and the Russian songs and sacred music on CD 3 is another asset. The first eleven were recorded with the admirable Feodor Potorzhinski Choir.

Many readers may have some favourite songs here and they are sensitively and beautifully sung with Christoff’s usual care for expression. Tracks 3 and 4 – The Bandore and Down Peterskaya Street are particular favourites with me, and the Song of the twelve robbers is another dear friend. Even better as an interpretation is the Siberian prisoner’s song; this is a performance with penetrating psychology, not just superb singing. This and the three Mussorgsky songs, all four recorded in 1951 with Gerald Moore at the piano, are among the greatest song interpretations ever set down. Strong words, no doubt, but I can’t really see any valid counter-arguments. Hans Hotter and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau were on the same exalted level but not necessarily better. The encore, Song of the Volga boatmen, is also masterly in the total control of dynamics.

To me Boris Christoff was unable to sing a dull tone. He is without doubt one of the greatest singing artists ever recorded. As always Nimbus also provide well researched biographical notes by Alan Bilgora. And the sound is as good as the original shellacs or early LPs allowed. Don’t miss this one!

 

Göran Forsling

 


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