Mussorgsky Boris Godunov

Author: 
John Warrack
boris gergiev

MUSSORGSKY Boris Godunov

  • Boris Godunov
  • Boris Godunov

What we have here is, literally, two operas for the price of one. That is to say, the two records containing Mussorgsky’s first Boris Godunov and the three containing his second are available at five records for the normal cost of three. And what we are dealing with is, in a real sense, two operas.
First, a brief resume of the facts. In 1868-9 Mussorgsky composed seven scenes: outside the Novedevichy Monastery, Coronation outside the Kremlin, Pimen’s Cell, the Inn, the Tsar’s rooms in the Kremlin, outside St Basil’s Cathedral, Boris’s Death in the Kremlin. When these were rejected by the Imperial Theatres in 1872, he made various revisions. To meet objections about the lack of female roles, he added the two scenes with the Polish princess Marina Mniszek; he also substituted the final Kromy Forest scene for the St Basil’s scene (causing a problem by duplicating the episode with the yurodivy, or holy fool). He made a large number of adjustments, some minor, some more significant (such as dropping Pimen’s narration of the murder of the young Tsarevich), and one huge, the complete rewriting of the original fifth scene, in the Kremlin, sometimes known as the Terem scene (terem is an obsolete word for a room in a tower). This was the work he resubmitted, and which was first performed in St Petersburg in 1874. Rimsky-Korsakov’s famous version (which does much more than reorchestrate) was first heard in 1896, and for many years superseded its predecessors. As far as recordings are concerned, the nearest we have currently available of Boris I is a set of excerpts under Paul Daniel (in English, using David Lloyd-Jones’s translation as well as his now standard edition). Boris II is available under Rostropovich, Kitaienko and Abbado. Conductors of Rimsky-Korsakov’s version include Cluytens, Dobroven and Melik-Pashayev.
However, it has increasingly been recognized that Boris II is not a revision of Boris I but a different work, both as regards the view of the central character and his place in the historical narrative, and also as regards the rethought musical technique and sometimes change of idiom which this has brought about. So the present set makes a real contribution to our understanding and enjoyment of Russia’s greatest opera.
It follows that there have to be two singers of the central role. Neither is a Boris of the command of Christov or Ghiaurov or Talvela, to name but three. Putilin (Boris I) is in general more capacious in tone, more brooding and lofty, in the Terem scene more embittered and harsh, willing to act with the voice. Vaneyev is a more immediate and human Boris, tender with his son Fyodor (a touching, engaging performance from Zlata Bulycheva) both in the Terem and at the end, not always as dominating as this Tsar should be but sympathetic, allowing his voice to blanch as death approaches, and especially responsive to the melodic essence of Mussorgsky’s speech-delivered lines. This enables him to be rather freer with the actual note values. It does not necessarily matter: Mussorgsky changed his mind over various details, and the important thing is to use his notes to create character rather than be too literal with what the different versions propose. Pimen, strongly sung with a hint of the youthful passions he claims to have abjured, is sung by Nikolai Okhotnikov more or less identically in both performances.
The only character, apart from Boris, to be accorded two singers is Grigory, the False Dmitri. Viktor Lutsiuk (Boris I) is strenuous, obsessed, vital; Vladimir Galusin (Boris II) can sound more frenzied, and has the opportunity with the addition of the Polish acts to give a convincing portrayal of a weak man assuming strength but being undermined by the wiles of a determined woman. Here, she is none other than Olga Borodina, moodily toying with her polonaise rhythms and then in full sensuous call. Yevgenia Gorokhovskaya is a jolly old Nurse in the Boris II Terem scene. The rest of the cast do not really change their interpretations from one Boris to another, and indeed scarcely need to do so: it is not really upon that which the differences depend. Liubov Sokolova sings a fruity Hostess, welcoming in Fyodor Kuznetsov a Varlaam who can really sing his Kazan song rather than merely bawling it. Konstantin Pluzhnikov makes Shuisky move from the rather sinister force confronting Boris in the Terem to a more oily complacency in the Death scene: many Shuiskys make less of the part. Evgeny Nikitin is a creepy, fanatical Rangoni, Vassily Gerello a Shchelkalov of hypocritical elegance, Evgeny Akimov a sad-toned Simpleton.
Gergiev directs strong, incisive performances, accompanying sympathetically and controlling the marvellous crowd scenes well. However, it is a pity that he allows fierce whistles completely to drown the speeding violins opening the Kromy Forest scene (the music can be heard only when it returns), and he has not been given sufficient clarity of recording with the chorus. The words are often obscure, even with the boyars in the Death scene, and far too much is lost in the crowd exchanges. This is regrettable for a work that, in either incarnation, draws so much on realistic detail of articulation. Nevertheless, these five records form a completely fascinating set, one which no admirer of this extraordinary creative achievement can afford to ignore.'

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