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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839 – 1881)
Boris Godunov
Boris Godunov – Anatoly Kocherga (bass)
Fyodor – Liliana Nikiteanu (mezzo-soprano)
Xenia – Valentina Valente (soprano)
Nurse – Eugenia Gorokhovskaya (contralto)
Prince Shuisky – Philip Langridge (tenor)
Andrei Shchelkalov – Albert Shagidullin (baritone)
Pimen – Samuel Ramey (bass)
Grigory – Sergei Larin (tenor)
Marina Mnishek – Marjana Lipovsek (mezzo-soprano)
Rangoni – Sergei Leiferkus (baritone)
Varlaam – Gleb Nikolsky (bass)
Missail – Helmut Wildhaber (tenor)
Hostess of the inn – Elena Zaremba (mezzo-soprano)
Simpleton – Alexander Fedin (tenor)
Nikitich – Mikhail Krutikov (bass)
Mityukha – Wojciech Drabowicz (bass)
Boyar-in-attendance – Alexander Fedin (tenor)
Krushchov - Wojciech Drabowicz (bass)
Lavitsky - Wojciech Drabowicz (bass)
Chernikovsky - Mikhail Krutikov (bass)
Police Officer - Mikhail Krutikov (bass)
Slovak Philharmonic Chorus Bratislava, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Tölzer Knabenchor
Berliner Philharmoniker/Claudio Abbado
rec. 1993, Philharmonie, Berlin
Synopsis in English, French and German
SONY 19075811172 [3 CDs: 200:05]

The opera Boris Godunov is based on the drama with the same name by Aleksandr Pushkin. The eponymous hero is an historical character, who reigned as Tsar in Russia 1598 – 1605. The work was composed between 1868 and 1873, and it has an unusually chequered history. Mussorgsky created two versions of the opera: the first in 1869, which was never performed at the time, and a revised version in 1872, which was first seen in Saint Petersburg in 1874. It was however hostilely received at the premiere: “immature”, “amateurish”, “crude” were some of the invectives and Tchaikovsky’s verdict was even harder: “it is the most vulgar and vile parody on music...". Rimsky-Korsakov was more moderate, or rather in two minds: "I both adore and abhor Boris Godunov. I adore it for its originality, power, boldness, distinctiveness, and beauty; I abhor it for its lack of polish, the roughness of its harmonies, and, in some places, the sheer awkwardness of the music." This led him to “correct” what he regarded as negative features, and after Mussorgsky’s death launched his own revisions, first in 1896 and a final version appeared in 1908, and it was in that garb the work became known and was performed for several decades. What Rimsky-Korsakov did was making the orchestration more lavish and streamlined but at the same time he removed or at least diminished the originality, power, boldness, distinctiveness and beauty. Later Dmitri Shostakovich made his revision in 1939-1940, but it had to wait until 1959 before it was performed. Even closer in time, actually after Abbado’s version was recorded, Igor Buketoff made another revision, which was premiered by Valery Gergiev at the Metropolitan Opera in 1997. But since the 1970s it has become more and more common to reject Rimsky-Korsakov’s smoothed out version and return to Mussorgsky’s second version.

This is the case with the present recording by Claudio Abbado, who also adds the first scene of the fourth act from Mussorgsky’s original version of 1869, thus making this a very complete representation of the score. Abbado was no newcomer to Russian music in 1993, on the contrary he had long been hailed as an outstanding Tchaikovsky interpreter and not least his superb 1989 recording for DG of Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina.

That recording was made live with forces from the Vienna State Opera, where he was chief conductor at the time, and, as here, the Slovak Philharmonic Chorus and some of the same soloists as here as well. For Boris Godunov he moved over to Berlin and his, at that time, own Philharmonic Orchestra. Recorded in the Philharmonie during a period of three weeks and with a line-up of soloists, discriminatingly chosen, that is hard to beat, this is a recording that in many respects can be regarded as definitive. With Michael Haas as producer the sound is ideally balanced and the mighty choruses recorded with stunning effect. That the choral singers, at least to some extent, come from Eastern Europe, contributes to an authentic Slavonic sound. On the other hand, the BPO, honed to perfection by Herbert von Karajan during his 35 years at the helm, produce such a sophisticated sound that one sometimes wishes for some raw edge. Not that I mind hearing this luxurious band in top gear, but I remember seeing some reviews back in the 90s that regretted a portion of Slavonic wobble.

This latter was on the other hand something many of us regretted when we heard Russian singers of the old school, and this hang-up is completely absent here. In fact the whole cast match the orchestra in sonority. Here is Valentina Valente as the most beautiful Xenia you can ever expect to find, Liliana Nikiteanu’s voice may be a bit too fruity for the young boy Fyodor, while Eugenia Gorokhovskaya is exactly as fruity as one wants the Nurse. On the female side we also have two of the most prominent mezzo-sopranos of the period: Elena Zaremba as the Hostess, and Marjana Lipovšek in the major role of Marina.

In the tenor department Philip Langridge is an oily Shuisky, Sergei Larin, Lithuanian who died far too young aged 51, had sung all three tenor roles in Boris Godunov. His Grigory/Dimitri is really very good and he is at his very best in the love duet with Marina in act III. Alexander Fedin’s light tenor makes him an excellent Simpleton. Among lower voices Sergei Leiferkus is luxury casting for Rangoni, but of course his expressivity makes this slimy individual come alive a little extra. Samuel Ramey’s Pimen may be a little too well-behaved in the first act, but he makes a great impression when he returns in the last act and meets Boris. Gleb Nikolsky is a Varlaam full of character and Albert Shagidullin sings beautifully as Shchelkalov.

And Boris himself? There are of course many ways of interpreting this character role. Chaliapin’s histrionic reading, larger than life, became a kind of norm for many years, adopted by, among others, Boris Christoff. Nicolai Ghiaurov had a softer, more beautiful approach, and can be heard to good effect in Karajan’s Decca recording, which of course is the Rimsky-Korsakov version. I also remember Ivan Petrov on a Bolshoi recording from the 1960s, as well as the great Nesterenko, available on both CD and DVD. Anatoly Kocherga largely avoids the big gestures and prefers a more lyrical, inward reading, which pays dividends in his death scene. His whispered Góspodi! Góspodi! is deeply touching. This is a very human interpretation of the role and something to return to when one tires of too much histrionics.

And Abbado shows emphatically that his successful Khovanshchina was no one-off affair. Boris is a long, winding and sometimes sprawling score with many contrasting building blocks, but his careful handling of these elements and his sense of drama makes this reading seem to hang together better than any other reading I have heard.

My only complaint, and this has nothing to do with the musical excellence, is the absence of libretto. The synopsis in the booklet is of some help but is no substitute for a complete text. In spite of this no lover of this flawed but eternally fascinating masterwork should be without this recording.

Göran Forsling



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