Standing on the shoulders of Mihkail Glinka and Alexander Dargomyzhsky for inspiration, and those of Nicolai Rimsky Korsakoff for mentoring, Modest Mussorgsky had to peddle his Boris Godunov from inspiration to creation to submission to rejection to second production and on to triumph for six grueling years, all the while dealing with gossip, overbearing censors, egocentric prima donnas, the fear of displeasure from the Imperial family, and the demands of his military career.
Yet, the 1874 premiere became one big success, albeit one resented by many in the press who failed to appreciate Mussorgsky’s quirky harmonic ways and byways and his melding of Russian folk and Eastern Orthodox chant into his melodies, along with his rigorous command of classic compositional tenets and technique.
All well and good, one would say, as one contemplates the magnificence of Mussorgsky’s Olympian score, were it not for the elephant in the room: which Boris Godunov? For, unlike other giants who tortured and tweaked and transformed their scores over and over again to suit the demands of particular productions, Mussorgsky’s spirit has had to look down from up above on the supposed improvements posthumously wrought by lesser mortals on the masterpiece of one of the great geniuses of Russian opera.
Simply said, Mussorgsky would have been quite happy keeping his 1869 musical urtext as the one and only and definitive Boris. Take it or leave it.
I will take the 1869 original version of Mussorgsky’s rough-hewn, big-boned Boris Godunov and thank again and again a long list of musical entrepreneurs and artists, starting with BIS records, the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and conductor Kent Nagano, and the sterling cast they assembled for this project.
Boris Godunov is shy on women’s roles – the 1874 version’s Marina being in and out in the blink of an eye, and the Hostess at the Inn, the Nurse, and the young Tsar-to-be Fyodor reduced in the original version to little more than supporting roles.
Ah but the basses!
This recording stars the young Ukrainian Alexander Tsymbalyuk in the title role. He is sensationally good, commanding yet restrained, and in control of the crowd in the Coronation scene, stunning in the Kremlin scene, vulnerable and ultimately heartbreaking in his Death scene.
Finnish bass Mika Kares is Pimen, singing patricianly and lyrically at all times. Alexey Tikhomirov is no mere buffo bass but a sonorously menacing Varlaam.
The Shuisky, Maxim Paster and the Grigory, Sergei Skorokhodov are both first-tier tenors luxuriously cast in their supporting roles, especially with the absence of the tacked-on Polish scene and the Mussorgsky original and shorter Granovitaya Palace sequence.
Kent Nagano commands his forces magisterially, eliciting sheer musical magic from the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, the Gothenburg Opera Chorus, and the Brunnsbo Music Classes Children’s Chorus. The engineering by Carl Talbot is flawless, the overall production by Robert Suff impeccable. Bolshoi spasibo!!!
Rafael de Acha http://www.RafaelMusicNotes.com