Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839 - 1881)
Aleksej Krivchenya (bass) - Prince Ivan Khovansky, head of the Streltsy; Vladislav Piavko (tenor) - Prince Andrey Khovansky, his son; Aleksej Maslennikov (tenor) - Prince Vasily Golitsin; Aleksandr Ognivtsev (bass) - Dosifey, head of the schismatics; Victor Nechipailo (baritone) - Boyar Shaklovity; Irina Arkhipova (mezzo) - Marfa, a schismatic; Tatiana Tugarinova (soprano) - Susanna, an old schismatic; Gennadi Efimov (tenor) - Scrivener; Tamara Sorokina (soprano) - Emma, a maiden from the German Quarter; Yurij Korolev (bass) - Varsonofyev, a retainer of Golitsin; Yurij Grigoriev (baritone) - Kuzka, a Strelets
Choir and Orchestra of the State Academic Bolshoi Theatre and the Kremlin Palace of Congresses/Boris Khaikin
rec. 1974 (according to the booklet; other sources say 1972)
MELODIYA MELCD 10 01867 [3 CDs: 40:31 + 61:35 + 57:13]
Russian history was a central interest for Modest Mussorgsky. Boris Godunov deals with the troubled years around 1600 and Khovanshchina a similarly dark period about a century later when there was opposition to Peter the Great’s attempts at westernizing Russia. It was Prince Ivan Khovansky, the Old Believers and the Streltsy who plotted against Tsar Peter, but Peter got the best of it and the followers of Khovansky committed mass suicide. At least they do in the opera, but Mussorgsky was rather free in his way with historical facts.
Mussorgsky wrote his own libretto and started composing in 1872, before he revised Boris Godunov. Illness and over-consumption of alcohol prevented progress during long periods and when he died in 1881 the opera was still unfinished. His friend Rimsky-Korsakov completed it and orchestrated it and in that version it was finally premiered in 1886. In the 1950s Dmitri Shostakovich re-orchestrated the work in closer accordance with the composer’s intentions and it is that version that is most often heard today. On the present recording it is the Rimsky-Korsakov version that is performed. Khovanshchina has never attained the same popularity as Boris Godunov. One reason I believe is the complicated plot, another is the slow dramatic speed. Even so, there is a lot of accessible music with such numbers as the Dance of the Persian Slaves and some groovy choruses.
The present version was recorded in 1974 and has been re-mastered. The sound is good with lots of detail. The voices are very close and in the face of the listener. Listening with headphones, which I regularly do, I had to change the volume setting intermittently to protect my eardrums. Orchestral music needed some extra decibels, but when one of the grand basses appeared the sound was unsociable unless I turned it down quite a lot.
Boris Khaikin (1904-1978) was one of the legendary Russian conductors during the last century. He was principal at the Kirov Theatre in Leningrad 1944-1953, whereupon he moved over to the Bolshoi in Moscow. He recorded Khovanshchina with the Kirov forces in 1946 (see review) and again in 1974 at the Bolshoi. There is no doubting that either of these two recordings are as idiomatic as could be with conductor, orchestra and singers steeped in a tradition with roots struck deep in the 19th century. What they also have in common are some less attractive features, typical of the Russian tradition: voice production. Slavonic wobble has long been a pejorative but in the olden days this was normal. Beauty of tone was subordinated to drama and intensity. In the old recording the chorus sometimes sprawls. By contrast the Bolshoi evinces more Western ideals and thus a more sonorous and even choral sound. Listen to the chorus that concludes act III. Beautiful singing! Solo voices are however still Slavonic in 1974 - at least the sopranos and tenors. Fortunately the sopranos have little to sing but Piavko’s Prince Andrey has that typical hard tenor tone that cuts glass, and he sings at an unremitting fortissimo. Efimov in the character role of Scrivener is easier to digest. Then there is Alexej Maslennikov, who was a major artist and in a different political climate he would have had a commanding international career. Herbert von Karajan engaged him for his recording of Boris Godunov in 1970 where he was Shuisky and also doubled as the Simpleton. His Golitsin on this recording is a worthy memento of this singer, a smooth, mellifluous, lyrical voice utilized with the utmost sensitivity and elegance.
When we move over to the lower voices there is a lot more to relish. First and foremost we have Irina Arkhipova, one of the greatest mezzo-sopranos active during the 1960s and 1970s. Marfa was among her greatest roles and the Fortune telling aria (CD 2 tr. 3) is beautifully sung - marvellous. She surpasses by a wide margin both Sofya Preobrazhenskaya on the earlier Khaikin recording and Elena Zaremba on a DVD from Liceu.
On the male side there is a host of strong baritones and basses, not least the baritone Victor Nechipailo who has a long expressive solo in act III. The most central characters are Ivan Khovansky and Dosifey, the leader of the schismatics. The former is magnificently sung and acted by Aleksej Krivchenya, who at the time of the recording was well past 60. Born in 1910 he died in March 1974, which makes me wonder whether this recording was made that year. Anyway it is obvious that it is an old singer, no longer so sonorous, but with an expressivity that is almost visible. The latter is beautifully sung by Aleksandr Ognivtsev with a somewhat lighter and more baritonal voice. He is not quite in the same class as Mark Reizen on the older recording, but then no one is really in that class and Ognivtsev is splendid in his own right.
Khovanshchina is an opera that grows with each hearing. The story is as unwieldy every time but the great power and beauty of the music makes it worthwhile. This Bolshoi recording, in spite of some less than inspiring singing, has a great deal to offer.
This Bolshoi recording has a great deal to offer.