At first appearances, this Khovanshchina isn't too bad.
There are a number impressive voices in the cast. Everyone involved
sounds very Russian, although in fact they are all Bulgarian.
And the recording sounds clean and true, even 'modern' despite
dating from 1978.
But first appearances can be deceptive, and it soon becomes
clear that this isn't an ideal Khovanshchina by any standards.
It is a product of Cold War politics in many respects. Western
record companies, unable to work in Russia but still on the
lookout for Russian-sounding voices, saw countries like Bulgaria
as the best compromise they were going to manage.
What they found there were very old-fashioned performing traditions,
competent and dependable, but nowhere near as exciting as what
was then happening in the Western opera houses. This is probably
the last ever recording of Khovanshchina to use the Rimsky-Korsakov
version rather than the more dynamic Shostakovich or Stravinsky
versions. The conductor Atanas Margaritov seems comfortable
with Rimsky's civilising influence, and gives a sweeping lush
performance that is more in keeping with the editor's cosmopolitan
view of the work than it is with the Mussorgsky's more brutal
This, of all operas, should make you sit up. So a performance
like this that you can easily put on as background music is
obviously doing it little justice. But that said, the quality
of the singing is one of the reasons why it is so easy on the
ear. The three bass leads, Dimiter Petkov, Todor Kostov and
Nicola Ghiuselev, all have the power, clarity and low notes
required for their respective parts. Ghiuslev is the most profundo
of them, and his passages in the lower register are a real treat.
Good too is Alexandrina Milcheva as Marfa. She has a rich, lustrous
tone and puts in plenty of vibrato. Comparisons with Ferrier
are fitting, and demonstrate both the quality of her voice,
and the old-fashioned style of her performance. The orchestra
is impressively precise, but there is rarely much excitement
or drama from them. Again, both Rimsky and Margaritov should
share some of the blame for that.
The distribution of the singers across the stereo array in this
concert hall recording is impressive, perhaps a little more
emphatic than in a modern recording, but not excessive. The
balance between the singers and the orchestra is also finely
judged. The cleanliness and roundness of the sound suggest that
invasive noise reduction process were applied during the digital
mastering. More annoyingly, there is a considerable amount of
crackily interference in the right channel for much of the first
CD. This was evidently already present on the recording's previous
CD release, on Capriccio in 1996, so for once Brilliant Classics
aren't to blame.