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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
Reviewed as a 24-bit Stereo FLAC download from
BIS BIS-2320 SACD [62:24 + 62:50]

Like Verdi’s Don Carlo, Boris Godunov is one of those works that exists in so many different incarnations that a conductor can sticklebrick together basically whatever he likes to create a performing version. So let’s keep this simple: what BIS give us here is Mussorgsky’s original version of 1869, his very first thoughts, rejected by the St Petersburg theatre and, as far as I’m aware, never performed in his lifetime. So there are none of the 1872 revisions, which means no Polish act, and we’re a long way before Rimsky-Korsakov got his hands on it.

It’s a bleaker, more unflinching version of the story than the 1872 version which is more often performed today, but its focused darkness gives it an appeal all of its own and plunges you even more unforgivingly into Mussorgsky’s world of treachery, betrayal, madness and murder. If there are fewer performances of the 1869 version today then there are also fewer recordings, so we’re lucky that this one is of such high quality.

The Gothenburgers play the score really well, getting right inside its inner workings. The string sound is particularly rich and Slavic, particularly in the scene in Pimen’s cell, but they also get right the shimmerings that surround the vision of Dmitri and the poignant atmosphere surrounding the Holy Fool and the Tsar’s children. The choruses also sound excellent, in the dramatic interactions as well as in the big setpiece moments, and BIS’s recorded sound is really good, particularly in the high-res download version that I listened to. Kent Nagano’s speeds are on the fast side, but there is nothing that sounds unnatural and he allows the work to unfold under its own momentum.

The soloists are very strong, too. Alexander Tsymbalyuk embues the Tsar with wounded dignity, and there is a mahogany quality to the voice that I really enjoyed. Perhaps he never quite sounds as tortured as he should, but he acts his way through Boris’ mental disintegration pretty effectively, and the final scene is suitably moving. Mika Kares’ Pimen is deeper and darker, an effective contrast, while Maxim Paster is an effectively insidious Shuisky. The real standout, however, is the top notch tenor of Sergei Skorokhodov, a really exciting Grigory; a performance which makes you regret all the more his disappearance from the opera at the halfway point. The minor roles are all very well taken, and Alexey Tikhomirov deserves a special mention, his Varlaam lighting up the inn scene in a way that it always should but rarely does.

There isn’t a lot of choice if you just want the 1869 version of Boris. The other major contender, perhaps marginally finer than this one, is Valery Gergiev’s Kirov performance, boxed together with his performance of the 1872 version. However, that’s no longer readily available away from downloads and streaming services, so this is the one to go for if you want a CD. Much more than a mere substitute, it’s a useful and valuable addition to the Boris Godunov discography. The booklet, by the way, downloadable from the same source, contains an essay, synopsis, biographies and, importantly, a useful transliteration of the Cyrillic alongside the English translation.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: Leslie Wright

Ralph Moore’s survey of the Boris Godunov discography

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