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Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov

de Modest Mussorgsky

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Modest Mussorgsky (1839–1881)

Boris Godunov: Opera in Prologue and Four Acts

(Revised and orchestrated by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov)

Boris Godunov / Pimen / Varlaam – Boris Christoff
Feodor / Marina – Eugenia Zareska
Shchelkalov / Rangoni – Kim Borg
Grigory (Dimitri) – Nicolai Gedda

Shuisky / Missail / Krushchyov – Andrzej Bielecki
Xenia – Ludmilla Lebedeva
Nurse / Hostess – Lydia Romanova
The Simpleton – Wassili Pasternak
Police Officer / A Guard – Stanislav Pieczora
A Boyar – Gustav Ustinov
Lavitsky – Raymond Bonte
Chernikovsky – Eugene Bousquet

Russian Chorus of Paris
French National Radio Orchestra
Issay Dobrowen

Recorded: 6-21 July 1952, Théâtre des Champs-Elyseés, Paris.

Naxos Historical, 2004. TT 64:35+68:12+71:39. Liner notes by Tully Potter. Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn.

CD 1: Prologue & Act I
CD 2: Act II & Act III
CD 3: Act IV & Appendix

Studio Recordings of Fyodor Chaliapin as Boris Godunov, 1926-31
[1] Coronation Scene: Chorus [1926-05-27] – previously unpublished
[2] Coronation Scene: Boris’ monologue [1926-05-27] – unpublished on 78 rpm
[3] Act 2: Boris’ monologue [1931-06-06]*
[4] Act 2: Hallucinations Scene [1931-06-06] – previously unpublished take*
[5] Act 4: Boris’ Farewell and Prayer [1926-05-21]
[6] Act 4: Boris’ Death [1926-05-27] – take unpublished on 78 rpm

Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Eugene Goossens
*London Symphony Orchestra / Max Steimann

Recorded in Queen’s Small Hall & *Kingsway Hall, London.


What I have to say about this tremendous recording I have said in my attempts for reviews of the Pearl and Brilliant editions, and by way of comparison in my reflections on the 1962 remake. Here I can only say a word about the sound (excellent; possibly even slightly better than Pearl) and the Appendix (deserves a few brief paragraphs of its own).

It was a brilliant idea to include these Chaliapin performances. Now music lovers need no longer listen to presumptuous critics but can hear for themselves. So much hokum has been written to the effect that Christoff was all but a pallid imitation of his great Russian predecessor. Not only do I disagree with this, but I would go further.

I think Chaliapin’s greatness is more due to history than to his vocal or dramatic gifts. He was lucky to be young when Boris Godunov was unknown in the West. It gave him ample opportunity to show off his equally unknown naturalistic style. He was something new, striking, exotic, and a little frightening. He must have been riveting on the stage.

But on record he is thoroughly underwhelming. The voice is powerful but thin and monotonous, lacking in weight and nuance. The technique and the diction are often sloppy, sometimes embarrassingly so. The characterisation is exaggerated almost to the point of caricature. What comparison, then, with Boris Christoff?

Boris Christoff was obviously influenced by Chaliapin, as he had to be considering the Russian’s overwhelming fame, but he used this basis to build up his own, thoroughly original and far more convincing characterisation. Christoff’s Boris is one of the greatest tragic characters on record. Chaliapin’s Boris is an unintentional comic character; a caricature; a shouting contest. There can be no comparison between Christoff and Chaliapin even in the Russian repertoire, not to mention the Italian one.

Alan Blyth is the only person I know of who has ever had the balls to say the obvious: “Christoff was both the more sensitive musician and possibly (although I know this is controversial) the better technician.”[1] It is not controversial at all. It is obvious.

[1] Alan Blyth, “A Critical Discography” in Boris Christoff: An Authorized Biography by Atanas Bozhkoff, Robson Books, 1991, p. 155. ( )
  Waldstein | May 22, 2017 |
Modest Mussorgsky (1839–1881)

Boris Godunov:
Opera in Prologue and Four Acts

Revised and orchestrated by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908)
Libretto: Mussorgsky after Alexander Pushkin and Nicolai Karamzin

Boris Godunov / Pimen / Varlaam – Boris Christoff
Marina Mnishek – Evelyn Lear
Grigory (Dimitry) – Dimitr Ouzounov
Rangoni – Anton Diakov

Shuisky – John Lanigan
Shchelkalov / Lavitsky – Jacques Mars
Xenia – Ekaterina Gueorguieva
Fyodor – Ana Alexieva
Nurse – Mela Bougarinovitch
Hostess – Mira Kalin
Simpleton – Kiril Dulguerov
Missail / A Boyar – Milen Paounov
Chernikovsky – Bojan Katzarsky
Polica Officer – Nicolai Christov
Khruschchov / Peasant – Vasil Benchev

Chorus of the National Opera of Sofia
Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire
André Cluytens

Recorded: 4-6, 12-15, 17-21.IX.1962, Salle Wagram, Paris.

EMI Classics, 2002. Great Recordings of the Century. 3CD. 69.56+56.13+77.11. Liner notes by Richard Osborne. Libretto (Rus+Eng+Fr+Ger). Digital remastering, 2002.

CD 1: Prologue & Act I
CD 2: Act II & Act III, Scene 1
CD 3: Act III, Scene 2 & Act IV


It is a rare pleasure to find a well-written and perceptive essay in the booklet to a great recording. Richard Osborne can always be counted on writing one. I may disagree with some of his points, but there is no denying his erudition and excellent style. He provides here a rather comprehensive overview of Mussorgsky’s life and personality, the difficult birth and childhood of his Boris Godunov, the background of this particular recording, the people who made it possible, and the opinions they have generated for the last 55 years. Let’s have a look at these issues together with Mr Osborne.

It was the received opinion even among the avant-garde composers of the time that Pushkin’s “quasi-Shakespearean chronicle play Boris Godunov” was unsuitable for operatic treatment. Mussorgsky would have none of this. By December 1869 he had completed the first version of his opera, reducing to six Pushkin’s 23 scenes.[1] It proved to be much too bold for its time and place. It was rejected because of the lack of strong female character and love interest. So Mussorgsky set out to revise completely the score and by 1874, two years after the revision was completed, he had succeeded to have his work performed. It was hardly a success, though. It was soon relegated to the shelves, apparently never to leave them.

“The revision was all gain”, opines Mr Osborne, “even in those scenes where Mussorgsky appears to have “sold out” to Meyerbeerian grand opéra.” I beg to differ. First of all, Mussorgsky at his worst is infinitely better than Meyerbeer at his best. There is simply no basis for comparison. I do agree the so-called “Kromy Scene” (Act IV, Scene 1 in this recording) is a fine addition, making, together with the Prologue, the people central to the opera and expanding, if a little incongruously, its scope beyond Godunov’s personal suffering. But the whole “Polish act”, with its arrogant Marina and lovesick Grigory, only dilutes the work on the whole, being really relevant neither to the people nor to Godunov. The best about this act, not surprisingly, is Rangoni. The oily and wily Jesuit is one of Mussorgsky’s most memorable characters. He steals the show completely from Marina and Grigory.

For most of the twentieth century Boris Godunov was known in neither of its original forms but in Rimsky-Korsakov’s edition of the 1872 version. With the arrogance of a Roman emperor[2], Rimsky-Korsakov took liberties with the score of his friend which our puritanical age considers sacrilegious. But he has been judged much too harshly. First of all, Rimsky-Korsakov did what he did for the sole purpose of making popular a work he thought undeservedly neglected. And he certainly succeeded, though Chaliapin and Boris Christoff also played prominent parts. Besides, as quoted by Mr Osborne, Rimsky-Korsakov was very modest about his edition: “If ever the conclusion is arrived at that the original is worthier than my revision, mine will be discarded.” This has happened in the last half a century or so, but that doesn’t change the fact that Rimsky-Korsakov’s version is highly effective. It is no accident that it was used in the two greatest complete recordings.

I have listened to Mussorgsky’s 1869 original only once, live in the theatre, and to his 1872 version not at all, so I can’t pass even the most superficial judgements on Rimsky-Korsakov’s re-orchestration and other subtle changes. But there is something to be said in favour of at least one of his re-arrangements. He made the opera end with Godunov’s death, not with the Kromy Scene as Mussorgsky intended. This is surely an improvement. Some people argue that this violates the original intention to make the Russian people the central character of the drama. This is nonsense. If Mussorgsky had wanted anything of the kind, he sure would not have given Boris Godunov by far the most powerful moments in the whole work. Indeed, he would not have called his opera Boris Godunov. He would have chosen a more general title, as did Verdi with La forza del destino, which had its premiere in Saint Petersburg in 1862 and whose choral scenes and a pair of contrasting monks must have made an impression on Mussorgsky.

Mr Osborne is most fascinating on the background of the 1962 recording. It was intended to be a stereo remake of the legendary 1952 version, but Boris Christoff’s triple tour de force was just about the only thing that remained the same. Dobrowen had died in 1953, Choeurs Russes de Paris didn’t exist anymore, and apparently nobody of the supporting cast was available to repeat his or her role. The recording was originally supposed to be made in Berlin with Kiril Kondrashin, but the Soviets closed the borders in August 1961 and this project fell through. Cluytens and Salle Wagram were scheduled instead. The chorus of the Sofia National Opera was signed at Christoff’s insistence and their glorious singing more than justifies his recommendation.

There was some talk about choosing Mussorgsky’s 1872 version this time, but some executive in EMI, David Bicknell by name, insisted on keeping the Rimsky-Korsakov edition. The same guy, commendably, also insisted on restoring some cuts that had been observed ten years earlier. Mr Osborne rightly notes that one of these was Pimen’s second monologue in Act I, of which Christoff was astonishingly unaware until he came to prepare for this recording, but it’s curious that he should have omitted the duet between Grigory and Rangoni and Grigory’s soliloquy before his duet with Marina in Act III. It would be foolish to claim, as some people have done, that “these omissions further strip the opera of the political questions and human dilemmas that lie at its core”. These omissions do nothing of the kind, but if the “Polish act” is to be retained at all, it is better to have it as complete as possible. The restoration of these cuts, and not Cluytens’ slower pace, is the major reason why this recording is some 25 minutes longer than the one from 1952.

Mr Osborne is certainly right, unfortunately, that the “received opinion” is that this stereo remake is inferior to the “original” in every possible way. Christoff’s interpretation, most notably of the title character, is considered toned down and less striking. Cluytens is “not such an idiomatic conductor and the supporting cast in markedly inferior”, as a revered musical critic said.[3] Instead of making Mr Osborne’s half-hearted attempts for defence, I would completely reverse this judgment.

It is true that Boris Christoff’s portrayal of the ill-fated tsar is more refined and less histrionic compared to the one from 1952. But why this is seen as a drawback, and not as the improvement which in fact it is, I have never understood. In 1962 Boris was ten years older (48) and far more experienced in the title role. Despite his hectic career during the 1950s, his voice was still intact; the bottom end had become even darker and more secure, while the top was as pure and easy as ever. As for the interpretation, let no one think there is anything tepid or lacklustre in it. Far from it! The Hallucinations and the Death Scene are as terrifying as ever, and so is the meeting with Shuisky in Act II where the tsar’s madness first springs to the surface. Godunov’s two great soliloquies, in the Coronation Scene and in Act II, are actually more dramatic, with sharper accents on certain words, than they were in 1952. In short, ten years later Boris simply proved that not only he had matured as an artist, but also that he was still a tsar in this repertoire.

André Cluytens is a completely different conductor than Issay Dobrowen, but I contend he is by no means inferior. I do not subscribe to nationalist nonsense that Russian émigrés are by definition more authoritative, or “idiomatic” if you like, conductors of Russian opera. Surely Russian music is not quite so parochial, is it? Cluytens, in fact, was no slouch in this repertoire, at least its orchestral part, and he was, as Mr Osborne nicely puts it, “a theatre conductor born and bred.” He leads a wonderful performance here, judiciously paced, lyrical or dramatic as the music demands, and with a fine touch for orchestral colour (very important considering Rimsky-Korsakov’s unique ear for it). And he is splendidly recorded in natural and vivid early stereo, sounding better than ever in this 2002 remastering.[4]

It is true that the supporting cast here is inferior to the one in 1952. But let’s not grossly overstate this truth, shall we? Dimitar Ouzounov may not have the elegance and elocution of Nicolai Gedda, but he does compensate with certain passion that befits a pretender for the throne, if a false one. Likewise Anton Diakov certainly doesn’t have the seductive timbre of Kim Borg, yet he conveys Rangoni’s scheming mind only slightly less vividly. Evelyn Lear tends to be a little shrill at the top, and her diction is not on par with Zareska’s, but she is a fine Marina, proud and vain and greedy as every fine Marina must be, but also young and hot. Some minor parts in this recording are gloriously sung, far better than they were in 1952. John Lanigan wins the gold medal in this category for his fabulous Shuisky. I have never heard this cringing cipher sung with such eloquence.

Summing up, this 1962 recording is at least as good as its more famous predecessor. I might even go further and say it is better. The chief reasons are Boris Christoff’s superior characterisation and the excellent sound. André Cluytens is by no means inferior to Issay Dobrowen, whatever musical nationalists may tell you. He is simply different, and in his own way entirely convincing. The supporting cast is not quite so splendid as it was, I admit, but neither is it in any way inadequate if you resist the infantile passion for comparisons.

The presentation is lavish, as usual for the Great Recordings of the Century series. Mr Osborne’s essay, as I hope I have shown, is superb. He also provides useful track-by-track synopsis in case you want to find quickly something but aren’t quite sure where to search for it. There are several fine photos, including Boris in costume for all three of his roles and discussing some detail in the score with the conductor, and also a charming shot of André Cluytens laughing. My only quibble is the transliterated libretto, but that can’t be helped, it seems. Apparently people in the West regard the Cyrillic alphabet with such horror that even one of the greatest operatic masterpieces cannot enjoy its text properly printed. We in the East, on the other hand, have no trouble learning the Latin alphabet.

[1] If Mr Osborne is to be believed, the Coronation Scene was Mussorgsky’s invention. If so, it was a characteristically bold move. Instead some festive and fatuous speech to the people, Godunov is given an anguished soliloquy (he is talking to himself) that leaves no doubt about his state of mind: “зловещим предчувстием сковал мне сердце”. People who suggest that Godunov’s reluctance to accept the crown is not genuine evidently never read the libretto. This brief but anguished “aria”, significantly beginning with “Скорбит душа”, is a brilliant way to establish immediately the mainspring of the tragedy, although the reasons for Godunov’s depression are explained, or at least suggested, much later.
[2] By the way, “Rimsky” means “Roman” in Russian.
[3] Alan Blyth, “A Critical Discography” in Boris Christoff: An Authorized Biography by Atanas Bozhkoff, Robson Books, 1991, p. 161.
[4] This “better than ever” was a bit of overstatement, of course. I have not heard all previous editions. At any rate, the sound is better than the 1987 EMI remastering, possibly the first time this recording made it to CD. For years this was my only chance to hear Boris’ 1962 Boris. When I finally got my hands on the 2002 remastering I was impressed by the strikingly improved clarity and dynamic range. As if the fog had lifted! ( )
  Waldstein | May 22, 2017 |
Modest Mussorgsky (1839–1881)

Boris Godunov: Opera in Prologue and Four Acts

Revised and orchestrated by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908)

Boris Godunov / Pimen / Varlaam – Boris Christoff
Feodor / Marina – Eugenia Zareska
Shchelkalov / Rangoni – Kim Borg
Grigory (Dimitri) – Nicolai Gedda

Shuisky / Misail / The Boyar of Krushchov – Andre Bielecki
Xenia – Ludmilla Lebedeva
Nurse / Hostess – Lydia Romanova
The Simpleton – Wassili Pasternak
Nikitich – Stanislav Pieczora
A Boyar – Gustav Ustinov
Lavitsky – Raymond Bonte
Chernikovsky – Eugene Bousquet

Choeurs Russes de Paris
Orchestre National de la Radidiffusion Française
Issay Dobrowen

Recorded: 6-21 July 1952, Théâtre des Champs-Elyseés, Paris.

Brilliant Classics, 2003. 3CD. 178’26’’. No libretto. Digital remastering by EMI, 1994.


I have come across a great deal of criticism of Boris Christoff’s singing the three main bass parts in a complete recording of Boris Godunov, something which he had the temerity to do twice (1952, 1962). “It is a questionable procedure only partly justified by Christoff’s extraordinary skill”, ominously noted one eminent music critic.[1] “It may be considered a fault (and indeed I think it was)”, wisely observed another.[2] “An indefensibly self-aggrandising procedure”, hysterically screamed a third.[3] “He sounds the same in all three roles”, lamented an erudite Amazon reviewer.[4] So they said, and they are all honourable men.

All this sounds very strange to me. It is true, of course, that the feat can be done only on record. But I don’t see why this is such an issue. There is only one place, for a few minutes in the last scene, when Boris must “meet himself”. Otherwise these are different characters in different scenes and there can be no confusion between them. This type of criticism sounds like sour grapes to me. The critics probably could not forgive Boris for doing something even Chaliapin before him hadn’t done. Probably the same critics scorned Horowitz for playing the finale of the First Scherzo in octaves, not in single notes as written by Chopin. But this is an enhancement rather than a change and, as Harold Schonberg said, it doesn’t falsify the music and if one can do it with panache, why not?[5]

“He sounds all the same” criticism is just as much against the artistry of Boris Christoff as it is against Mussorgsky’s powers of characterisation. It is nonsense, of course. No three bass characters could be more different. They are no more the same then, say, Mozart’s Leporello and Commendatore or Verdi’s Guardiano and Melitone. As for Boris, you have to hear for yourself, but to my mind the heavenly mezza voce of Pimen has nothing to do with Varlaam’s booming and boisterous vociferations – as Mussorgsky no doubt intended. The last scene mentioned above, when Pimen meets Godunov with fatal consequences for the latter, is an excellent opportunity to experience Christoff’s chameleonic artistry. As John-Pierre Joyce well put it: “the contrast between the two characters [...] is so clearly marked that one doesn’t at first realise that they are sung by the same singer.”

The title character is in a class entirely by himself. It’s a huge part, possibly unparalleled in its range and emotional intensity in the bass repertoire. Godunov does not appear at all in the first and third acts, or in the first scenes of the prologue and the fourth act. But the rest of the opera is a trial very few basses have survived. The second act alone is murderous. It begins with the tender scene of Boris with his two children, Xenia and Feodor, which shows the tsar as a loving father. It continues with his great soliloquy, in which his tormented soul is laid bare, and the crucial meeting with the devious Shuisky who informs him about Dimitri, the false pretender, and thus releases the tsar’s pent-up madness. It ends with the most terrifying Hallucinations Scene that can be imagined. The tremendous final scene, with Godunov’s farewell to his son, prayer and death, is surely one of the greatest and most shattering in all opera.

How does Boris Christoff manage all this? Simply stupendously! He was 36 at the time of this recording and had already sung the part in Covent Garden and La Scala, among other places. He is second to none in the Hallucinations Scene and the confrontations with Shuisky and (in the last act) with the boyars, where dramatic recitation with perfect diction rather than beautiful singing is required, but he is also without rival in the intimate moments where he produces the most ravishing pianissimo (yet every word remains clear), most notably in the final prayer. In the greatest moments of all, the soliloquies in the Prologue and the second act and the Death Scene, he combines the best of these profoundly different worlds. This is a monumental, commanding, mesmerising performance, almost too intense to endure.

Boris Godunov is often called “the Russian Richard the Third” because of his infanticidal tendencies, but he is really more than that. Richard is a court jester who aspires to be a tragic character, but he never really makes it. Godunov is the genuine article. He doesn’t die of a trivial heart attack. He dies of guilty conscience. Mussorgsky certainly didn’t see him as a villain or a comedian, and neither did Boris Christoff. Both agreed that exceptional characters require extreme measures. If opera is your idea of relaxation, this is the wrong work for you.

The supporting cast must not be neglected, though Boris dominates that too. The two scenes of the first act belong to Pimen and Varlaam, the pious chronicler and the coarse drunkard respectively. It would be hard to imagine a more striking contrast more vividly portrayed. The third act belongs to Marina, Rangoni and Dimitri. We are fortunate to have these roles impeccably sung. Kim Borg steals the show, however. Rangoni is not the most generous part out there, and the whole subplot with him, Marina and Dimitri does feel like padding (which indeed it was[6]), but a great singer-artist can do wonders with Rangoni’s combination of oily obsequiousness and sinister fanaticism. So Kim Borg does. The whole cast is fortunate to have Dobrowen’s inspired conducting behind their backs.

This Brilliant edition utilises the 1994 EMI remastering. It sounds fine to my ears. The Naxos and Pearl editions may boast slightly better depth and dynamics, perhaps a little cleaner sound, but the differences are minor. No modern treatment can do much about the inherent defects of this recording. On the other hand, as I have said more than once, complaining about the sound is missing the point completely. Occasional roughness in the grandest choral and orchestral moments is a fair price to pay for a performance of that order. The same goes for a few cuts (regrettable, of course, but hardly essential) and Rimsky-Korsakov’s tampering with the score (shameful, of course, but highly effective).

All things considered, the Brilliant edition is a top choice, or at least it used to be in the old days when it was in print. It is – or was – cheaper than Naxos and much cheaper than Pearl. Of course it doesn’t contain libretto, but neither do the other two. Full librettos are unfortunately hard to find even online, and the few that do exist are mostly of the horrible transliterated type. This is a pity because Boris Godunov is more a music drama than an opera and the text does matter a great deal. The good news is that the whole cast here is nearly word-perfect. So brush up your Russian and listen carefully.[7]

[1] Alan Blyth, “A Critical Discography” in Boris Christoff: An Authorized Biography by Atanas Bozhkoff, Robson Books, 1991, p. 160.
[2] John Steane, Russian Opera Arias and Songs, EMI Classics, 2007, p. 5.
[3] David Hamilton in Opera on Record (1979), as quoted by Richard Osborne in his notes to the 1962 recording.
[4] One “Jurgen Lawrenz”, who recorded his imperishable voice for posterity on April 29, 2013.
[5] Harold C. Schonberg, Horowitz: His Life and Music, Simon & Schuster, 1992, Appendix II, p. 332.
[6] Much of this material Mussorgsky composed for the 1872 revision, trying to make the originality of his 1869 original more palatable to the general public. He seems to have been inspired in the process and, to be sure, there are countless composers in history who would have loved to have their best work resemble Mussorgsky’s padding. But it’s padding nonetheless. And it dilutes the much more powerful concept that concentrate on Boris and, to a lesser extent, the people.
[7] Or use Google in Russian. Then it’s not so hard to find a nice libretto in the original language. Now brush up your Russian and read carefully. Note, however, that this version of the libretto has three scenes in the last act. In the 1952 recording, the first is omitted (“St Basil’s Scene”), the third becomes the first (“The Kromy Scene”) and the second remains the second but also becomes the last (death of Boris). Confusing, is it? ( )
  Waldstein | May 22, 2017 |
Modest Mussorgsky (1839–1881)

Boris Godunov:
Opera in Prologue and Four Acts

Edited by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908)

Boris Godunov / Pimen / Varlaam – Boris Christoff
Feodor / Marina – Eugenia Zareska
Schelkalov / Rangoni – Kim Borg
Grigory, The Pretender – Nicolai Gedda

Shuisky / Misail / The Boyar of Krushchov – Andre Bielecki
Xenia – Ludmila Lebedeva
Xenia’s Nurse / Hostess of the Inn – Lydia Romanova
The Fool – Wassiliy Pasternak
Nikitich – Stanislav Pieczora
Court Boyar – Gustav Ustinov
Lavitski – Raymond Bonte
Chernikovski – Eugene Bousquet

Choeurs Russes de Paris
Orchestre National de la Radidiffusion Française
Issay Dobrowen

[Recorded: 6-21 July 1952, Théâtre des Champs-Elyseés, Paris.]

Pearl, 2003. 3CD. 178’46’’ opera. 197’22’’ including four previously unpublished bonus tracks. Produced and transferred by Roger Beardsley. Liner notes by Stanley Henig. Producer’s note. No libretto.

CD 1
[1] Scene 1: Introduction and Pilgrims’ Chorus [14’09’’]
[2] Scene 2: Coronation Scene [11’06’’]
Act I [39’36’’]
[3] Scene 1: Monastery Scene [18’43’’]
[4] Scene 2: A Tavern on the Lithuanian Border [5’42]
[5] Scene 2: In the Town of Kazan – Varlaam’s Song [15’11’’]

CD 2
Act II
- The Tsar’s Chambers [32’27’’]
[1] Nursery Scene [9’44’’]
[2] “I have obtained the highest power” [11’08’’]
[3] “Most noble Lord and Tsar” [7’32’’]
[4] Clock Scene [4’03’’]
Act III [36’00’’]
[5] Scene 1: Marina Mnishek’s room in the Sandomir Castle [8’28’’]
[6] Scene 1: Marina/Rangoni Duet [9’23’’]
[7] Scene 2: A garden in the castle grounds [7’01’’]
[8] Scene 2: Fountain Duet [11’08’’]

CD 3
Act IV
[1] Scene 1: Revolutionary Scene [19’10’’]
[2] Scene 2: Council Chamber Scene [3’34’’]
[3] Scene 2: “It is a pity Prince Shuisky is absent” [5’20’’]
[4] Scene 2: Pimen’s Monologue [5’31’’]
[5] Scene 2: Death of Boris [11’48’’]

Previously unpublished bonus tracks

Songs and Dances of Death

[6] No. 1 Trepak [4’50’’]
[7] No. 4 Field-Marshall Death [5’27’’]
Gerald Moore, piano
Recorded: 4/12/1949

Tchaikovsky [sic][1]
[8] Song of the Dark Forest [4’03]
Gerald Moore, piano
Recorded: 16/5/1950

[9] The Prophet [4’14’’]
Philharmonia Orchestra / Wilhelm Schüchter
Recorded: 19/3/1952


The most important things in this edition are the bonus tracks. Previously unpublished studio recordings of Boris Christoff are rare today; pretty much everything has appeared on LP and CD countless times. None of these four is unique to his extensive discography, but all of them provide some material for idle comparisons.

“The Prophet” by Rimsky-Korsakov, an incredible combination of powerful text and music which illuminates every word of it, I consider one of the pinnacles of Russian Lieder. Boris evidently agreed with me. This is the only work, aria, song or complete opera, which he recorded three times in the studio[2], all of them with orchestra. The first recording, with Issay Dobrowen and the Philharmonia, made on the same day (May 5, 1950) as his stupendous account of “Song of the Volga Boatmen”, remains unpublished to the present day. The second recording is the one with Wilhelm Schüchter presented here. Fine performance though it is, it doesn’t have the incisive diction and the sheer grandeur of Christoff’s last recording, made in 1963/64 with Andre Cluytens at the rostrum. Boris loved the song enough also to include it at least 18 times in his concerts between 1945 and 1981. There is a live recording from 1953 that shows many variations of tempo, phrasing and even text compared to the studio version from 1952.

Boris Christoff recorded altogether 20 songs with Gerald Moore at the piano between December 1949 and March 1952.[3] Some of these have become quite famous, for instance “Leaves Rustled Sadly” (“Листья шумели уныло”), which was included in the complete set with Mussorgsky songs recorded between 1955 and 1957, and the heartbreaking “Siberian Prisoner’s Song”, not only one of Christoff’s finest moments, but one of the greatest vocal performances on record, ever. There is a 1951 account of “Field-Marshall Death” (better titled “The Field-Marshall”), strikingly different than this one from 1949, which is widely known as part of Russian Opera Arias and Songs (1992, rem. 2007). It is fascinating to hear these early renditions, so different yet so unmistakably Christoff-like, made when the artist was only 35 years old, eight years before he recorded the complete set in studio (with orchestra) and still twelve more before he included it in his repertoire.

This recording of Borodine’s sinister “Song of the Dark Forest” is quite a bit slower than the much better-known version recorded some 17 years later (1966/67). It suits the lugubrious character of the song even better.

None of these previously unpublished recordings is among Boris Christoff’s best achievements. (None is particularly well recorded either, for that matter.) But we, the tiny group of his fans, are grateful for their release. Even when he is not at his best, Boris is an immensely creative artist worth exploring. In his “Producer’s note”, Mr Beardsley credits Vivian Liff and George Stuart, “those world-renowned collectors”, with providing this rare material and concludes thus:

From them I also had an unpublished recording of the Faust Serenade, a tempting prospect until I read their annotation with the recording: ‘Very poor – he rightly rejected it.’ However much I wished I could have disagreed, it was obvious that it was completely unsatisfactory. It would not have been right to publish it.

This Serenade, recorded with Karajan and the Philharmonia in November 1949, was first released some five years before Mr Beardsley penned those words. Though certainly “poor” by the later standards of Christoff’s complete recordings of the opera (1953, 1958), the Serenade is by no means “very poor” or “completely unsatisfactory”. Its publication is no less right, and no more wrong, than the publication of these 1949 versions of “Trepak” and “The Field-Marshall”.

As for the 1952 complete recording of Boris Godunov, 65 years have not tarnished at all its status as a yardstick. Boris Christoff’s singing the three main bass parts on the same recording, for which he has been and continues to be criticised by nitpickers, remains an imposing tribute to his artistic versatility as well as to Mussorgsky’s formidable powers of characterisation. The rest of the cast is fully up to his level. Eugenia Zareska and Kim Borg, both of whom double parts, leave nothing to be desired in their portrayals of Marina and Rangoni. Their duet in Act 3 is one for the ages. Andre Bielecki even triples parts, and he is excellent in all of them. The late Nicolai Gedda is a fine Dimitri, elegant yet passionate, with perfect Russian as befit an operatic polyglot like him. Issay Dobrowen, who died on the next year, knew the score inside out, having, as Mr Henig points out, conducted the German premiere in Dresden thirty years before this recording. He leads orchestra and chorus in a swift-paced and highly dramatic performance, theatrical in the best sense of this word.

The rationale behind this release is explained in Mr Beardsley’s tedious and obscure “Producer’s note”. I won’t pretend I understand his erudite discussion of microgroove cutters and frequency ranges, but I do get his point is to present the recording in better sound. Well, I don’t know about early LPs by HMV or RCA, but I am of the opinion that the sound here is only marginally better than EMI’s 1994 remastering (available cheaply from Brilliant Classics). “Our reputation is second to none in the field of historical reissues”, we are modestly informed on the back cover by a Pearl executive who wishes to remain anonymous. This was not true then. It is even less true today. In 2004, just one year after the Pearl attempt, Mark Obert-Thorn produced his own edition for Naxos. It is hardly inferior to this one.

The sound has always been the biggest problem, indeed the only problem, of this recording. It is clean and vivid, with a remarkable dynamic range for its age, but the big moments are rather rough. The bells in the Coronation Scene are the most notable example (they remind me of Pink Floyd’s “Time”, the great difference being that Floyd’s cacophonic effect was deliberate), but the choral scenes, of which there are many, also suffer.

But it’s pointless to dwell too much on the sound. Whatever edition you choose, Pearl, Naxos or EMI-Brilliant, this is a towering performance. The presentation of this Pearl edition, incidentally, is no great shakes, especially considering it wasn’t cheap even back then. There is no libretto whatsoever; only brief and very inadequate synopsis by Mr Henig. Otherwise, however, his notes are interesting and informative. He provides some fascinating, and little-known, information about the cast and the opera. Unless you are passionately interested in the history of the EMI-Decca competition in the development of high fidelity recordings, Mr Beardsley’s “Producer’s note” may be skipped without any loss.

The Rimsky-Korsakov version of the score, which takes quite a few liberties with Mussorgsky’s original, has nowadays fallen into grave disfavour. But dwelling too much on this makes no sense, either. Mussorgsky’s masterpiece has certainly survived the treatment. It might even be the better for it. This Boris Godunov remains one of the greatest operatic tragedies out there. If you need but one recording, this is the one. If you insist on stereo sound, Boris Christoff’s remake with Andre Cluytens (1962) is the one. All others are mere shadows.

[1] Yet another example of unbelievable sloppiness. “Песня тёмного лесa” is a song by Borodine, of course. I understand Pearl is not a major label, but a mistake like that is unacceptable.
[2] To be precise, this is not entirely true. Mussorgsky's "The Field-Marshall" was also recorded three times (1949, 1951, 1957), but only the last one was with an orchestra. There may, or may not, be another similar example. According to the Chronology in Boris Christoff: La Vita, La Voce, L’Arte (1996), Boris recorded Beethoven’s “In questa tomba oscura” (WoO 133) three times in three consecutive days between 28 and 30 March 1952 with Gerald Moore at the piano. The Discography by Malcolm Walker in the English edition (Robson Books, 1991) of Atanas Bozhkoff’s biography gives only the last two; only the one from March 30 has been released on LP and CD, and even that is obscure.
[3] Interestingly enough, neither source from the previous note mentions Borodine’s “Song of the Dark Forest”. Otherwise, except for the slight discrepancy mentioned above, they agree very well. ( )
  Waldstein | May 21, 2017 |
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Nome do autorFunçãoTipo de autorObra?Status
Modest Mussorgskyautor principaltodas as ediçõescalculado
Borg, KimRangoniautor secundárioalgumas ediçõesconfirmado
Choeurs Russes de ParisChorusautor secundárioalgumas ediçõesconfirmado
Christoff, BorisBoris Godunov, Pimen, Varlaamautor secundárioalgumas ediçõesconfirmado
Dobrowen, IssayConductorautor secundárioalgumas ediçõesconfirmado
Gedda, NicolaiDimitriautor secundárioalgumas ediçõesconfirmado
Gergiev, ValeryConductorautor secundárioalgumas ediçõesconfirmado
Orchestre National de Radio FranceOrchestraautor secundárioalgumas ediçõesconfirmado
Zabreska, EugeniaMarinaautor secundárioalgumas ediçõesconfirmado

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