Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-81)
Boris Godunov (1868-74, rev. orch. Rimsky-Korsakov) [154:42]
Boris - Nicolai Ghiaurov (bass)
Grigori/Pretender - Alexei Maslennikov (tenor)
Marina - Sena Jurinac (soprano)
Pimen - Kim Borg (bass)
Varlaam - Anton Diakov (bass)
Prince Shuisky - Gerhard Stolze (tenor)
Misail - Milen Paunov (tenor)
Rangoni - Zoltán Kéléman (bass)
Fyodor - Gertrude Jahn (mezzo)
Xenia - Nadejda Dobrianova (soprano)
Hostess - Margarita Lilowa (mezzo)
Simpleton - Gerhard Stolze (tenor)
Shchelkalov - Sabin Markov (baritone)
Krushchov - Zvonimir Prelcec (tenor)
Nurse - Mariana Radev (contralto)
Nikitich - Tugomir Franc (bass)
Lavitsky - Siegfried Rudolf Frese (bass)
Cherniovsky - Paul Karolidis (bass)
Chorus of the Vienna State Opera, Chorus of the Croatian National Opera Zagreb, Chamber Chorus and Children’s Chorus of the Salzburg Festival
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. Salzburg, 1966, live performance.
Notes and libretto included.
OPERA D’ORO OPD7084 [3 CDs: 52:33 + 60:16 + 41:53]  

I am surprised, given the quality of sound on this recording, that Opera d’Oro has seen fit to re-issue it under their “Grand Tier” de luxe label. It has long been available in their standard series but has drawn some justifiably acerbic comments regarding the muddiness and inconsistency of sound, with virtually no higher frequencies and ensembles dissolving into mush. Individual voices fare better but this still sounds more like a poor amateur recording than the usual acceptable mono radio broadcast. Most of Act 3 is horribly muffled.
Furthermore, only four years later Karajan made an excellent studio recording of this opera for Decca with many of the same cast, using the fuller, later, 1908 revision by Rimsky-Korsakov; here Karajan streamlines the opera, using mostly Rimsky-Korsakov’s first version from 1896 but also making some large cuts, including Pimen’s first narrative and he rather perversely swaps the order of certain scenes, so that the scene in Pimen’s cell precedes the Novodievichy Square scene and the last two scenes are reversed, such that Kromy Forest precedes the death of Boris. This might be said to conclude the opera more dramatically but it also undermines Mussorgsky’s intention to switch the audience’s attention back to people, who in themselves constitute a major character in this opera. It also subverts the pathos of giving the last word to the Simpleton. I am thus mystified as to why anyone would see this live performance as more desirable than the 1970 studio recording, given the cuts, tinkering and its gross sonic inferiority.
A case might, however, be made for the enhanced drama of a live occasion and more energy in Karajan’s direction yet tempi are only marginally slower in the Decca recording and it in any case provides so much more clarity and detail that the comparison becomes otiose. Another claim is that Nicolai Ghiaurov is fresher and more animated live in 1966. I hear little difference; we are talking about only four years when he was still in his absolute prime, singing perhaps his greatest role under a conductor who rarely revised his approach to a score once he had worked it out to his satisfaction. Again, a preference could be expressed for the darker-voiced Marina of Sena Jurinac over that of a slightly squally Vishnevskaya but both are excellent. Anton Diakov’s Varlaam is a distinct liability in 1966: he is harried by Karajan’s excessive briskness in his narration about Ivan the Terrible in the town of Kazan and bawls his way through it horribly sharp; things go better with him at a less hectic pace in the studio recording. Otherwise, apart from where the roles are taken by the same singers, the differences amount to a game of swings and roundabouts: both Finnish basses Kim Borg and Martti Talvela (himself a notable Boris) are imposing as Pimen, Zoltán Kéléman reprises his oily, menacing Rangoni, and a slightly effortful but heroic Ludovic Spiess marks an improvement on Alexei Maslennikov, who was promoted to Grigori by Karajan in Salzburg but is happier reverting to the Simpleton for Decca.
Oddly, Opera d’Oro does not provide the full cast list so I have supplemented it above by recourse to another source. Although having a libretto is not so much welcome as vital to Anglophones, it is odd that they insert photographs of a clearly much older Ghiaurov (as King Philip?) and another of Borg whereby both are clearly costumed for other roles in other operas. I do not see a strong case for preferring this live Salzburg version over the later studio recording. Although Karajan’s “diamond and sables” approach to the score has been criticised as too opulent, for me, he and Ghiaurov still manage to bring out the searing drama of this epic opera in both versions. The difference is that in 1970 you can hear it properly.  

Ralph Moore 

I do not see a strong case for preferring this live Salzburg version over the later studio recording.