''To Russians, Mussorgsky's music is an integral part of their cultural awareness and, like the novels of Dostoevsky, plagues them with agonizing questions: what are the causes of Russia's continuing calamities and the Russian state's persistent disregard for the law which crushes all that is good and even denies a person the right to his own death?'' Victor Borovsky's question, in his fine essay in the programme book, is as timely as the opera remains; and it is perhaps no coincidence that, just as Dostoevsky used to be hard to find on Soviet shelves, so Khovanshchina was almost throughout its history misrepresented in Russia. The performances under Claudio Abbado in Vienna last year were in many ways an act of rehabilitation, one that is taken further by the publication of this remarkable set of records.
In the first place, as is made clear in the interview with Abbado on page 953, the version of this tangled, difficult score which has been prepared is essentially that of Shostakovich, based on Pavel Lamm's edition, with Stravinsky's ending. The implications of this are discussed in another authoritative accompanying essay, by Richard Taruskin. In brief, Rimsky-Korsakov is rejected for reasons now very familiar: his orchestration was too glossy, his 'corrections' of Mussorgsky's harmony too conventional. No less importantly, Shostakovich is in part accepted, though some of the brass emphasis that has long troubled admirers of his work is lightened, but rejected with regard to his final 'triumphant' ending with the return of the Preobrazhensky March. The point is crucial. At the centre of the opera is a confrontation of essential Russian characteristics that were to divide into the enduring Slavophile-Westernizer debates; and in Soviet times the view taken by Stasov and then Rimsky-Korsakov, that the Old Believers represented all that was regressive and obscurantist in Russia, was underlined in contrast to the automatic state optimism here associated with Peter the Great. With the beautiful, tragic music of the restored ending, here most beautifully played, the strength, the dignity, the Christian endurance and tolerance of the Old Believers is set back in place as a vital ingredient of the work.
So we have here a Khovanshchina which may not present a complete solution to the work—its history is too uncertain and complex for that—but which does come closer than ever before to what seems to have been Mussorgsky's vision. It is very much a collaborative enterprise. Above all, honour must go to Abbado for his lead. His belief in the work and understanding of its issues is evident at every turn, from the exquisite playing of the opening Dawn scene, and the other purely orchestral passages, to his sensitive support of the singers in their contrasting roles and his capacity to articulate the opposing factions by characterizing their music so perceptively. The orchestra is excellently recorded, on the whole, rather better so than some of the singers; the recording is based on several evenings in the Vienna Opera, and not only are the voices sometimes set at rather a distance, but there is a measure of tramping and coughing. None of it matters much.
The cast mostly rise to the interpretation presented to them by this version and Abbado's intentions. There is, at the start, a vivid scene between Anatolij Kotscherga's bullish Shaklovity and the angry, frightened little Scribe of Heinz Zednik. Marfa is superbly sung by Marjana Lipovsek, calm and possessed in her divination scene, maintaining a steady warmth against the frantic assaults of Brigitte Poschner-Klebel's Susanna. There is a lively, colourful, desperate account of Emma from Joanna Borowska, well matched against Vladimir Atlantov's fierce Andrey Khovansky. Aage Haugland is splendid as old Ivan Khovansky; but there is a slightly disappointing performance of Golitsin from Vladimir Popov, who must, especially in the circumstances of this version of the work, carry the burden of the Westernizer ideal in his Act 2 narrative, and does not underline the complexities of the character as fully as others in the role have done. I must also admit to some disappointment with Paata Burchuladze. Perhaps longer acquaintance with the set than I have so far had will reveal more subtleties in a performance lacking in the towering authority and visionary fervour the part must possess. His interventions, first in Act 1 and then to silence the quarrel between Marfa and Susanna, do not seem to carry enough conviction, and his actual tone is too often disturbed by a low, heavy vibrato.
A vital contribution in this whole collaboration has been that of scholarship; and in times when record companies can betray their customers with inadequate supporting material, it is a pleasure to welcome this set's booklet. Outstanding essays include Dr Borovsky's on Chaliapin and the work's theatrical history, Richard Taruskin's magisterial survey of the historical background to the work and changing attitudes to it, and valuable German essays by Michael Stegemann on the history by way of Mussorgsky's letters and by Sigrid Neef on the music (especially the dramatic associations of contrasting sound-worlds and tonalities). There is also a contribution by Abbado himself, and a careful table of the manuscript sources and how they have been assembled into this version, together with the original Russian libretto, a transliteration, and English, French and German translations. The whole provides not only fascinating reading to help and deepen enjoyment of the work, but is the fullest assemblage of the scholarly material known to me. Coming hard on the heels of the recent Tchakarov recording for Sony Classical, it presents a perhaps unfortunately timed choice to collectors; but certainly no one with an admiration for Mussorgsky, or indeed with any feeling for Russia, should miss this set.'