Readers may recall my review
of the Naxos 1952 recording of Boris Godunov
(1914-1993) in all three major bass roles. I grew up in a household
where this singer’s 78s stood alongside those of the great Chaliapin.
They were as much treasured as those of the tenors Björling, Schipa,
Tagliavini and Gigli, along with their soprano counterparts.
The recording highlight of the LP 1950s was the emergence of HMV sets of Boris Godunov
and Don Carlos
featuring Christoff in the lead bass roles of each. I determined that one day I would see him on the opera stage.
He first appeared at London’s Covent Garden singing Boris
, in Russian, in 1949. He later appeared as Philip in Visconti’s ground-breaking Don Carlos
in 1958 (see review
). Under Sir David Webster’s stewardship of that theatre (1944-1970) Christoff only ever sang those two roles, a fact that rankled with him. He was, however, heard in London in concert performance as Zaccaria in Nabucco
and in 1973, at Covent Garden, as Fiesco in Simon Boccanegra
which I was privileged to see. In February 1970 I first saw him as Boris at Covent Garden in the last days of Webster’s rule. Courtesy of a kind usherette, who took mercy on my very restricted view seat, which cost me my fee for the day’s work in London, I saw the Coronation Scene where Boris holding the jewels of office descends a long staircase, from David Webster’s personal seat; he was not in the theatre that night. Christoff’s sonorous singing and histrionic portrayal of Boris blended in a manner that made his interpretation all-involving, even all-consuming.
In this collection his singing of The Death of Boris
, his preceding prayer (CD 9, trs. 4-5), his later stereo recording (CD 11, rr.13) along with Philip’s soliloquy Ella giammai m’amò
(CD.10. Tr.10) are so overwhelming in their impact that when closing my eyes the costume and staging are vivid in my imagination. In these and other items Christoff is memorable for his secure tone, expressive nuance, exemplary diction and wide variety of tonal expression and phrasing. These bring out his clear understanding of the soul of the character so as to realize a consummate whole.
Christoff was born in Plovdiv on 18 May 1914. Educated as a lawyer, he was heard by the King of Bulgaria while singing with the famous Gusla Choir. At the behest of the King in 1942 he was granted a scholarship to study singing. He moved to Rome and for several years his teacher there was the baritone Riccardo Stracciari. The booklet notes tell us that he made his operatic debut in 1946 as Colline in La bohème
in Reggio di Calabria, where his singing of the last act Coat Song
earned two encores. Not a particularly large man, Christoff had a magnetic stage presence. His piercing eyes are what I remember in his Fiesco and they always seemed to make him the centre of attention on stage. His rich, sonorous voice was compact and perfectly focused and made its effect in every part of the theatre. Every word was clear and every gesture seemed fully laden with meaning.
Christoff's perfectly controlled Slavic voice was ideally suited to the Russian operatic repertoire. In the operatic section of this collection, along with his interpretation of Boris, he is heard in Susanin’s Aria and Death
from Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar
(CD 11, trs. 7-9) as well as from Borodin’s Prince Igor
(CD 11, tr. 10). He was the perfect basso cantante
in a number of Verdi roles including Philip from Don Carlos
and Fiesco from Simon Boccanegra
. These are featured on CDs 10 and 11 and include Attila’s call to Uldino
, (CD 11, tr. 4), O tu Palermo
from I Vespri Siciliani
(CD 10, tr. 5), two bass arias from Nabucco
(trs. 6 and 7) as well as Ernani
(tr. 8) and the act three duet A te l’estremo adio
from Simon Boccanegra
with his brother-in-law Tito Gobbi (tr.9) and the Father Guardian’s Il Santo nome
from act 2 of La forza del destino
, the later role in which he is seen in a 1958 performance from the San Carlo, Naples (Hardy Classics HCD 4002).
I am less enamoured of Christoff’s somewhat hammy singing of Mephisto’s two arias from Faust
, a little hammy and certainly bettered by his Bulgarian compatriot Nicolai Ghiaurov who I saw in the theatre as Boris. Christoff did not take kindly to comparisons with his compatriot and had many preferences and quarrels relating to fellow singers, some narrated in the booklet.
I have concentrated on the better-known operatic contributions the singer made to the lyric theatre. However, the cognoscenti of singing will find as much pleasure in the discs of Russian songs by Mussorgsky, Borodin, Cui, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. These constitute the first eight discs in this collection. Some were recorded by Christoff’s illustrious predecessor, Chaliapin, but often not with the quality of piano accompanist Christoff usually enjoyed or the excellence of recording. For those whose love is Russian Art Song this collection is particularly memorable and balances the common view of Christoff as exclusively an operatic singer and magnetic stage presence. A kind of half-way house is to be found on CD 9 with its extracts from Russian opera alongside the better known Song of the Volga Boatmen
and The Siberian Prisoner’s Song
(trs. 13-14), The Dances of Death
No 4 (tr. 15) and on CD 3 (tr. 21) The Song of the Flea
. Many of the other discs in the collection have songs accompanied by orchestra and illustrate the singer’s command of the genre as well as providing sublime examples of his art.
This collection is presented in a sturdy box with each disc in a cardboard slipcase. All the titles of the Russian songs are given in English.
Singers of this quality and distinction, able and willing to spread their skills across opera and song, with such vocal character and nuance as to give so much pleasure, only come around every generation or two.
Robert J Farr
CD 1 [57.16] Songs by Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1888). Gerald Moore
(piano) and Radio Orchestra of France/Georges Tzipine
CD 2 [57.16] Songs by Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1888). Alexander Labinsky
(piano) and Radio Orchestra of France/Georges Tzipine.
CD 3 [67.59] Songs by Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1888). Alexander Labinsky
(piano) and Radio Orchestra of France/Georges Tzipine
CD 4 [64.26] Songs by Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) and Alexander Borodin
Alexander Labinsky and Alexander Tcherepin (piano)
Concert Orchestra Lamoureux/Georges Tzipine
CD 5 [72.52] Songs by Borodin and Cesar Cui (1835-1918). Alexander
Tcherepin, Janine Reiss and Serge Zapolsky (piano)
CD 6 [65.49] Songs by Mily Balakirev (1837-1910) and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
(1844-1908) Alexander Tcherepin and Nadia Gedda-Nova (piano).
Orchestre de la Société du Conservatoire/André Cluytens
CD 7 [69.48] Songs by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
(1840-1893). Alexander Labinsky (piano)
CD 8 [68.19] Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943). Alexander Labinsky (piano).
Popular Russian Songs. Feodor Potorjinsky Russian Choir. Balalaika
rec. 1958 and 1954
CD 9 [78.28] Russian Operatic arias by Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander
Borodin, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Various
orchestras and conductors.
CD 10 [78.11] Operatic Arias by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791),
Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787), Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835),
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), Arrigo Boito (1842-1918) Various orchestras
CD 11 [78.38] Operatic Arias by Christoph Willibald Gluck, Giuseppe
Verdi, Mikhail Glinka, Alexander Borodin, Modest Mussorgsky. Various
orchestras and conductors. rec. 1954-1966