Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Boris Godunov (original version, 1869-74) [153.19]
Boris Christoff (bass) – Boris; Edgar Evans (tenor) – Grigory/False Dimitri; Margreta Elkins (mezzo) – Marina; Joseph Rouleau (bass) – Pimen; Michael Langdon (bass) – Varlaam; John Lanigan (tenor) – Shuisky; David Tree (tenor) – Missail; Josephine Veasey (mezzo) – Feodor; Jeannette Sinclair (soprano) – Xenia; Edith Coates (contralto) – Hostess; Robert Bowman (tenor) – Simpleton; David Ward (bass) – Tchelkalov; Noreen Berry (contralto) – Nurse; Robert Savoie (baritone) – Nikitich; Ronald Lewis (baritone) – Mityukh, Lavitsky; Rhydderch Davies (bass) – Chernikovsky; Thomas Fletcher (tenor) – Krushchov
members of George Green Grammar School; Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden/Sir Reginald Goodall
rec. Royal Opera, Covent Garden, 10 June 1961
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO123 [76.20 + 76.59]
This release comes as quite a surprise. Although John Lucas in his 1993 biography of Sir Reginald Goodall refers in a footnote to the existence of a BBC radio recording of the performance of Boris Godunov given at the Royal Opera Covent Garden on 10 June 1961 under Goodall’s baton, he does not list it in his discography of the conductor’s work in the same volume. It was in the event — with the exception of a single performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Golden Cockerel — the last conducting engagement undertaken by Goodall at Covent Garden for ten years. When he next appeared in the pit at the Royal Opera to conduct Parsifal – a BBC recording of one of those performances has already emerged on CD – he had already established his reputation as a Wagnerian. But he had always enjoyed critical approval for his interpretation of Boris, and the appearance of another opera in the sparse representation of Goodall on disc is to be wholeheartedly welcomed.
In fact John Lucas reports that Goodall preferred the more sparkly and ‘cleaned-up’ version of the score by Rimsky-Korsakov to Mussorgsky’s original, but this recording of the unadulterated score has additional advantages in providing us with the chance to hear Boris Christoff and John Lanigan in the original score – when they came to record their roles commercially for EMI the Rimsky edition was employed. Not that what we have here exactly corresponds to anything that Mussorgsky would have expected. We are given the original (unperformed) 1869 version, with some of the cuts made for the first stage performance in 1874 (such as the end of the first scene of the Prologue, and the discussion between the boyars which precedes the death scene) and the revised Second Act from that edition. We are also given a heavily abridged version of the 1874 Polish scenes — the role of Rangoni is completely excised, and the second scene is represented only from the Polonaise onwards. The final Kromy Forest scene that Mussorgsky added in 1874 to substitute for the St Basil’s confrontation between Boris and the Simpleton is missing in its entirety. Oddly enough a review from The Times included in the booklet note refers specifically to the fact that the Kromy Forest scene was given at the performance on 2 June*, although the same review also mentions the often-omitted second part of Pimen’s 1869 narration describing the murder of Dimitri at Uglich and Feodor’s description of the chiming clock both of which are retained in this later performance.
This recording, we are told, derives from a tape made by an anonymous collector presumably from the BBC broadcast. It is therefore a different source to the tape preserved in the British Library to which Lucas makes passing reference in his biography. We are told that the sound is a considerable improvement both on that and another pirate copy which has been in circulation over the years. Andrew Rose has subjected the original to further re-mastering to eliminate “dropout and the like”, and by excising the opening BBC announcements before each Act has managed to squeeze what is left of the score onto two CDs. Incidentally the division into ‘Acts’ does not correspond to any of Mussorgsky’s or Rimsky’s actual descriptions, but presumably simply reflects where Covent Garden inserted its intervals at that time.
That production, in gloomy but atmospheric sets, remained in the repertory at Covent Garden for many years. I myself encountered it some ten years later when Boris Christoff again took the part of the Tsar, this time reverting to the Rimsky-Korsakov revised version of the score ... not that the differences in the vocal part for the title role are that substantially different. Just before his death scene he staged a heart-stopping plunge from his throne down a precipitous flight of steps in a manner which would be halted immediately nowadays by any self-respecting Health and Safety Officer. Even ten years later his voice remained in superlative form and hearing him without stage histrionics in 1961 makes one realise how well he assumed the role of the tortured monarch in vocal terms alone. In both his commercial recordings Christoff also doubled the roles of Pimen and Varlaam, distinguishing between them even when the monk and the Tsar are in dialogue with each other. Here he is confined to the title role alone. The obvious comparisons with the near-contemporaneous Cluytens set for EMI are enlightening. Christoff was never a singer content simply to reproduce an identical interpretation, and here his more forthright delivery reflects the atmosphere of a stage presentation. Nor do the problems of stage perspective intrude; indeed, the stage noises are less obvious than in the Cluytens recording where the producer inserted some rather clumsy “Culshaw-like” sound-effects into the stereo mix. The recorded sound is forward, but the presence of the orchestra is not stinted and the whole of the Coronation Scene, for example, has more impact than with the rather studio-bound Cluytens in the cavernous acoustic of Paris’s Salle Wagram.
The other roles which Christoff took for Cluytens are here given by Joseph Rouleau and Michael Langdon, both members of the regular Covent Garden roster in the 1960s. Indeed Rouleau himself undertook the role of Boris, as can be heard on the house’s anniversary album issued in the late 1960s. His voice – and his characterisation of the old chronicler Pimen – are not as distinctive as Christoff’s, and his voice sometimes takes on a rather unfocused and ‘woolly’ sound. That said, he brings out admirably the drama of his narration of Dimitri’s murder and is well abetted by the forthright Dimitri of Edgar Evans. Afterwards he is far too down-to-earth and matter-of-fact in his delivery of the message regarding the miracle wrought by the dead Tsarevitch in the final scene. Christoff himself (with Cluytens) shows how a more sensitive and mysterious style of delivery can really freeze the listener’s blood here.
Langdon was more famous for his villains than for more genial roles. His dark voice with its decisive metallic edge was well-suited to Hagen and Claggart. Here he displays a nice sense of sly humour as the rascally monk Varlaam, although he sounds very different to Christoff, with an element of sinister enjoyment apparent beneath his boisterous characterisation. Goodall plays up enthusiastically to the riotous accompaniment to Langdon’s drunken account of the fall of Kazan in a manner that those who recall the conductor’s later Wagnerian solemnity might find surprising. He is a bit po-faced in the children’s games in the first part of the scene in the Tsar’s apartments but better that than ending up in a helter-skelter before Boris’s entrance — as can happen when the music keeps accelerating. He takes the opportunity of his slower speeds to ‘point’ the woodwind interjections so that they breathe character.
Edgar Evans is properly heroic as the false Dimitri, but he comes unhappily to grief at a couple of points in the passage preceding the love duet. This leads me to suspect that he may have been unwell on the night of the performance - which might also explain the omission of the Kromy Forest scene. By the way, what we hear at the end of the love duet sounds like a reversion to Rimsky - since Mussorgsky’s original calls for Rangoni to join in a brief trio, which would obviously be impossible when that part has been entirely cut. Margreta Elkins is superbly assured as the scheming Marina, which only leaves one to regret that the cuts made in the Polish act leave her with so little to sing.
The inclusion of the St Basil scene allows us to hear Christoff’s doubtless dramatically powerful delivery of it; not otherwise available on disc, so far as I am aware. In fact his vocal contributions to the scene are perversely minimal; even Mitiukh has more lines than the Tsar. As the Tsar’s children both Josephine Veasey and Jeannette Sinclair are fine and properly impassioned, as indeed are the many singers from the Covent Garden company at that time. Edith Coates can be singled out as a genial Hostess as can David Ward who seems to find no terrors in the high-lying tessitura of Tchelkalov; we should register a note of regret at the omission of his contribution in the final scene. The chorus sound properly robust, although there is some ragged delivery which perhaps betrays the fact that they have learned the Russian text by rote rather than from the heart. And the orchestra under Goodall sound properly enthused by Mussorgsky’s sometimes quirky original scoring, not at all the rather reverential approach adopted in Semkov’s pioneering recording made by EMI Classics some fifteen years later which left the listener feeling that Rimsky’s ‘improvements’ might have been warranted. We know from later recordings that such ‘feelings’ are simply untrue.
Pristine provide no texts or translations, but these can be found readily once the listener knows what to expect to hear and what is here omitted. While the listener may wish that Covent Garden had restored rather more of the original than we can hear in this broadcast, the fact that it has been made available at all is cause for rejoicing. Not a first choice for a recording of Boris – personally I would recommend Abbado on Sony for a compound edition of Mussorgsky’s original, Gergiev on Philips if you want to hear both of the original versions in their pristine forms, or Karajan on Decca for a gloriously over-the-top delivery of Rimsky-Korsakov’s version —in which, after all, the opera established its international reputation. Nevertheless this is a performance of real historical importance and in very good sound, too. It's not just “good for its time” or “under the circumstances”, but generally crisp and clean with only the beginning of the St Basil scene sounding a bit too far from the microphones. Thanks are due to Andrew Rose and Pristine for such an excellent salvage operation.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
* The cast-list also records Thomas Fletcher as singing the role of Kruschov, but since that character only appears in the Kromy Forest scene omitted here, I assume the cast list has been taken from an earlier performance; unless there is something more complicated than a matter of simple omission here. The fact that the same cast-list also features singers for the roles of Lavitsky and Cherniovsky, who similarly only appear in that scene, suggests that this might be the case.