Composer: Modest Mussorgsky
Orchestra: Berliner Philharmoniker
Conductor: Claudio Abbado
Number of Discs: 3
Format: FLAC (image+cue)
Size: 820 MB
Boris Godunov – Anatoly Kotcherga
Fyodor – Liliana Nichiteanu
Xenia – Valentina Valente
Nurse – Eugenia Gorokhovskaya
Shuisky – Philip Langridge
Shchelkalov – Albert Shagidullin
Pimen – Samuel Ramey
Grigory – Sergei Larin
Marina Mnishek – Marjana Lipovsek
Rangoni – Sergei Leiferkus
Varlaam – Gleb Nikolsky
Missail – Helmut Wildhaber
The Hostess of the Inn – Elena Zaremba
Simpleton – Alexander Fedin
Abbado succeeds with his “Boris”
This polished and consistent version of Modest Mussorgsky’s groundbreaking “Boris Godunov” features an impressive group of all-star musicians. Conductor Claudio Abbado’s interpretation doesn’t have the wildness of some recordings or the finely-honed detail of Mstlav Rostropovich’s Erato release from the 1980s but it has body and richness. Every aspect of it is at least good and often quite a bit better than that.
The opera has an interesting genesis, conceived and first written by Mussorgsky in the 1860s, a decade of ferment in Russian music and also a decade when exceptional focus was concentrated on the era of Ivan the Terrible (late 16th century) and the ‘Time of Troubles’ that followed the tyrant’s death. The odd fixation with such a distant historical period was at least partly caused by the Romanov dynasty’s interdiction of any portrayal of their royal ancestors on stage. As the Romanov’s were the dominant force in Russia, how could playwrights and opera composers then comment on history and high politics with such a rule? They followed that traditional pathway around forbidden unmentionables and transposed the drama somewhere else, to a place far enough away to evade restrictions set down by the tsar’s censors, but close enough to hold echoes of their own era. Moreover, the drama of the paranoid and murderous Ivan — his fight with the hereditary nobility, his succession by Boris Godunov, and the swarm of social decay, chaos and civil war dubbed the Time of Troubles that followed – is colorful and intriguing enough to present inspiring raw material for any stage work.
The opera’s story centers on the pretender Dmitri, who claimed – almost certainly untruthfully – to be the son of Ivan whom Godunov had murdered many years before. I say untruthfully because the sources accusing Godunov of this crime all date from the early part of the Romanov rule and hence served partly as propaganda to discredit the new dynasty’s predecessors. Sources closer in time to the events did not report Dmitri’s death as suspicious. Boris Godunov, a good man and wise ruler undone by a crime of many years ago, is the target of the lying pretender and the forces, foreign ones (Mussorgsky was likely a pretty strong xenophobe), which propelled him onto the throne. In the famous and innovative Kromy forest scene that concludes the opera, chaos and murder spread and the simpleton is left bewailing the fate of the ever-suffering Russian people.
An autodidact of genius, Mussorgsky is perhaps the 19th century’s most original composer. ‘Boris’ is full of starkly arranged modal themes, constructed out of scale patterns that prompted symmetrical repetition rather than the more directional traditional harmonic patterns of his contemporaries. For me, the anticipation of the art of Igor Stravinsky permeates ‘Boris’. Mussorgsky’s lack of formal training certainly handicapped his compositional career, but it also allowed him to write fresh and very original music that stands outside of its epoch.
Headlined by Anatoly Kotcherga in the title role, the cast here is strong and includes top-notch singers like Philip Langridge, Samuel Ramey and Sergei Leiferkus in supporting roles and Marjana Lipsovek as the Polish princess Mariana. I mentioned this release’s consistency and it’s worth underlining again that there don’t appear to be any weak areas. The outstanding Rostropovich recording which I mentioned before –which I prefer over this fine Abbado set – does a better job of bringing out the nuances of orchestration and the inflections in the melodic phrases. Abbado and his singers instead present a smoother sound, one blending together the performing forces instead of isolating them.
I have few doubts that pretty much everyone intending to listen to ‘Boris’ will enjoy and value this release as it is strong, from Abbado’s direction to the soloists to the fine choral work to the sound engineering – and don’t forget the bells! They sound great in the Prologue’s Coronation scene. A worthy version, worthy of 5 stars.