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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Boris Godunov (1869) [125:14]
Alexander Tsymbalyuk – Boris Godunov
Maxim Paster – Prince Vasily Ivanovich Shuisky
Mika Kares – Pimen
Sergei Skorokhodov – Grigory
Oleg Budaratskiy – Police officer, Border guard
Anton Ljungqvist – Mityukha
Okka von der Damerau – Innkeeper
Alexey Tikhomirov – Varlaam
Boris Stepanov – Missail, a Boyar, Holy Fool
Hanna Husáhr – Xenia
Johanna Rudström – Fyodor
Margarita Nekrasova – Nurse
Göteborg Opera Chorus, Brunnsbo Music Classes (Children’s Choir)
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Kent Nagano
rec. live March 2017, Gothenburg Concert Hall, Gothenburg, Sweden
Sung in Russian with libretto included in Russian and English
BIS BIS-2320 SACD [62:24 + 62:50]

There was a time when the version of Boris Godunov almost exclusively encountered was Rimsky-Korsakov’s opulent re-orchestration of two conflated opera versions. We have come a long way since, though there are those who still prefer the Rimsky version. Both Mussorgsky’s original 1869 version, largely as heard on this new recording, and the later, expanded 1872 version are in Gergiev’s invaluable five-disc set for Philips. That set has been my benchmark ever since it was released in 1998. My own preference is for the 1869 edition because it is more cohesive structurally and also because I find the Polish scene of the later version rather artificial and not Mussorgsky at his best—attractive though some of the music may be.
This new account, based on live performances, is beautifully sung and played, and recorded in surround sound. I listened to it through my two-channel system. I suspect it would gain in immediacy if heard, as intended, in surround sound. Nonetheless, I find it somewhat lacking in drama overall. Alexander Tsymbalyuk, the Boris, has a fine, bass voice and convinces especially in his final, death scene. When I first heard him, I thought he might challenge Gergiev’s Nikolai Putilin, but the latter’s bigger, more powerful sound makes Tsymbalyuk pale by comparison. The other characters are mostly well taken in this new performance and I even prefer Nagano’s Pimen, as sung by Mika Kares to Gergiev’s more robust Nikolai Ohotnikov. Konstantin Pluzhnikov’s Shuisky for Gergiev, on the other hand, sounds like a real Russian tenor with an outstanding head voice, though Nagano’s Maxim Paster is also very good.

The Coronation Scene makes quite an impact on Nagano’s recording, even though the bells, while loud and clangy, are not deep enough. Just turn to Gergiev to hear the difference! The Holy Fool (yurodivy) is excellent in both casts, but the closer sound in Gergiev’s recording leaves a more vivid impression as the Holy Fool pleads for Boris and the future of Russia.
Boris’s death scene is almost always unbearably moving for me and does not disappoint in this new recording. There is, however, one difference from the edition Gergiev used: after the tsar dies, the orchestra concludes the opera quietly when the choir intones “uspne” (“he has passed away”). This is so soft as to be nearly inaudible. On this new recording that bit is absent. I understand that the version Nagano employed is the original, urtext, edition. Perhaps Gergiev added the chorus there because it is also in the 1872 version. There are other places, too, where similar differences occur as between Gergiev's version and Nagano’s account. In Scene 3, “In Pimen’s Cell,” the monks have a greater role in Gergiev’s performance and in fact are absent in tracks 9-10 of this new account. In any case, I have nothing but praise for the Swedish adult chorus or the children’s chorus. Also at the beginning of Scene 4, “At the Inn,” the orchestral introduction is more than twice as long in Gergiev’s recording. I could find nothing in the discs’ accompanying material that would authenticate Nagano’s edition, but am delighted that we now have a recording of what is in fact Mussorgsky’s original 1869 opera. Incidentally, one can hear stage noises now and then on Nagano’s recording that do not detract in any way from the music.
BIS has provided an attractive booklet with satisfactory notes in English, German, and French on the opera and its history, a synopsis of the scenes, and biographical sketches of the performers, as well as a complete libretto in transliterated Russian (utilizing international scholarly transliteration where a haček is given: “š for sh, č for ch” and a j for “y,” etc.) and English translation. There are a couple of places where the track numbers in the booklet do not align with the actual track changes on the discs.
Although I nitpicked through many aspects of this recording, I found much to enjoy. It is especially valuable to now have a recording of the opera as Mussorgsky first intended it.

Leslie Wright

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