Last year and the first part of this year I listened to an assortment of recordings of Modest Mussorgsky’s masterpiece. Here are the reviews:
Valery Gergiev, 1869 Version
Did Boris kill the young tsarevich? Is Grigory really the young tsarevich returning to claim his rightful place, or is he merely a Pretender? These are the central questions in this magnificent opera, which ranks among the very greatest penned. When I discovered opera in general, it did not take me long to discover this one (or Khovanshchina, for that matter), and I have adored it since. Like Les Troyens, I’ve managed to latch on to four different versions, and also like the French masterpiece, I figured it was time I went back over all of my versions. Why not?
I need to make clear that I am interested in Mussorgsky’s Boris, not Rimsky-Korsakov’s Boris. I’ve twice tried to sit through a Rimskied version – one on disc and one on video – and neither one ended up holding my attention. The work loses some impact in the less talented composer’s rewrite. But of course, the question still arises: Which version, the 1869 version or the 1872 version, or a mixture of both? And the answer is: Yes!
I figured I’d start with the rarity, which here means the original 1869 version. As far as I know, only Valery Gergiev has recorded this version, and a fine one it is. What it lacks in additional scenes, characters, and refined (for Mussorgsky) orchestration, it makes up for with concision, coherence, and dramatic power. Here the answers to my opening questions seem to be, yes, Godunov did kill the young tsarevich, and Grigory is a Pretender is trying to capitalize on that fact to seize the throne. It’s not quite that clear-cut, but there’s less to get in the way. So what of the work and performance? Well . . .
From the start, this set is quite an experience. The work opens with a police officer threatening a crowd and some remarkable choral singing from said threatened mass o’ people. What I can only describe as the Russian People Motif makes its first, powerful appearance, with the strings belting out the unforgettable, quasi-undulating tune. (In all honesty, I often find myself whistling or humming this wonderful music at random times for no reason.) As the crowd works itself into a fever pitch beseeching the newly crowned Boris to make his appearance, Mussorgsky marries a swelling, raw, powerful orchestral sound to an almost manic chorus, just to step back and float a beautiful little ditty in the strings just before Boris starts in. And what a scene! In this version, Nikolai Putilin makes a strong-voiced lament that he is assuming the role in the name of the people, obviously for the good of the people. Forget the scheming and murder, this man is an honorable leader! Indeed, as he sings, his soul is sad.
Part Two – the 1869 version being in four “parts” rather than acts – has the scheming Grigory discussing past events and the current reign of the Tsar with the knowing Pimen, and then in the second scene the clever Grigory determines to and succeeds in crossing the border into Lithuania to escape the Tsar’s hunt for the Pretender. He accomplishes this by fooling the illiterate police officer by reading a description of the fugitive that looks not like himself, but rather like one of his companions in the scene, Varlaam. This is about the only relatively light-hearted part of the opera, which is all the more apparent because of what follows.
And what follows is Part Three, set in the Tsar’s apartment. It opens with the Tsar’s daughter, Xenia lamenting the loss of her husband, and the genuine attempts of her father to console her. Fyodor, the Tsar’s son, is then seen to be studying the maps of the Empire he will (or may?) inherit. All of this is to show that despite his potentially wicked behavior, the Tsar is not a purely evil man. Plus it’s the perfect dramatic juxtaposition for the concluding scene in the Part. Boris is visited by Shuisky, who comes to warn him that the Pretender has gained the support of Boris’ enemies, and Boris proceeds to lose it. The orchestral writing is simply stunning here. Boris demands that Shuisky tell him about what he saw those many years ago when the tsarevich died, threatening to punish him in a manner that even Ivan the Terrible would be bothered by, and the music is perfectly ominous and chilling. As Shuisky describes how he saw the young tsarevich’s body apparently undead among a pile of a dozen corpses, the music is light and almost angelic in describing the boy’s fate. After Shuisky leaves, Boris goes into his long soliloquy in which he is haunted by images of the boy and collapses into an insane heap on the floor. Again, Putilin does an absolutely splendid job.
Part Four opens with a return of the Russian People Motif, and it has the requisite Idiot describing what has happened and what will be, if you will, while he implores the Tsar to kill the urchins who torment the Idiot, just like he killed the tsarevich. Ah, what Russian tragedy is complete without the Holy Fool? Not this one. Anyhoo, the action proceeds to the Kremlin, where first Shuisky warns his elite compatriots that Boris is nuts, and then Boris comes on in, bequeaths the throne to his son then dies. It is a powerful, swift conclusion, to a powerful, swift operatic masterpiece. It is really unlike anything else.
To an extent, I think Mussorgsky managed to do what Wagner never did: he manages to marry all of the elements of a stage work together in a perfect whole. Much of the music follows the patterns of the Russian language, the drama is compelling, the setting evocative and real, the text compelling, the lessons of the story are universal and valuable, and the music throughout is simply sublime. The biggest problem with Wagner is of course the text, which here is a strength. Of course, though Mussorgsky wrote the text, he got to rely heavily on Alexander Pushkin, who was unquestionably a much, much better author than Wagner. Wagner is ultimately the better composer, and he is significantly more sophisticated, but the concept of a Gesamstkunstwerk is more fully realized here.
So far I’ve made little mention of Gergiev and his band, or of the other singers. That’s because they are essentially perfect. Boris aside, this work is more about the whole than the characters. No singer gives a poor performance, and everyone serves the dramatic needs of the piece. The all-Russian cast sings perfectly idiomatically, as one would suspect, and it sounds as though many or all of them had sung their parts before. Gergiev leads about as good a performance as can be led. His timing, his control of dynamics, his absolutely perfect dramatic sense (for this piece, at least) all work to ably support the whole. The Kirov orchestra play superbly, the strings alternatively warm and astringent, as the score demands, the brass loud and piercing, and the winds pleasantly rough-hewn though never sloppy. (The Czech Philharmonic this is not.) There are so many high-points, that it is impossible to mention them all. Indeed, the whole work is a near perfectly-realized high point. What else can I say but this recording is Boris Godunov.
Well, the 1869 version anyway. Gergiev faces stiffer competition when the piece is fleshed out. Waiting in the wings for me are Gergiev’s 1872 version, released in a 5-disc set with this version; Claudio Abbado’s 1978 La Scala performance with Nicolai Ghiaurov in the lead; and Jerzy Semkow’s premier recording of the original score. Perhaps I shall investigate Abbado’s Sony recording as part of this little journey. And maybe I’ll even consider giving the Rimsky version another shot (Dobrowen? Cluytens?). Who knows? Anyway, my reexploration is off to an almost unbelievably brilliant start.
Jerzy Semkow, 1872-74 Version
Time for the next round. This time I thought I should revisit Jerzy Semkow’s 1976 recording of the original score, which was billed as the world premiere recording by EMI. Though an elite orchestra and conductor were not used, some fine singers were prompted to be a part of the recording, most notably Martti Talvela in the title role and Nicolai Gedda as the Pretender Dimitri (or Grigory). The second tier orchestra here is the Polish Radio National Orchestra accompanied by the Polish Radio Chorus of Krakow.
And the version? Well, it’s a mix of the 1869 and 1872 versions. The recording uses the full-length opening scene, now the Prologue, as well as the longer dialogue between Pimen and Grigory in what is now Act I. In the entirely new Act III, the new characters of Marina and Rangoni are added, both harboring secret ambitions as it regards the potential rise of the Pretender: Marina wishes to woo and marry him so as to be the Tsar’s wife and enjoy all the trappings that comes with such a position; Rangoni wishes to see Marina seduce and marry the Pretender so that his Jesuit sect can become the dominant religious group. The requisite Idiot is now transferred to a forest near the town of Kromy and placed at the end of the opera. Whew! As a result of all of these changes, Boris himself becomes only one character of many and is central to the action for only a few scenes.
With the structural niceties out of the way, the central question can be asked: Is the recording any good? Yes! While the work obviously lacks the cohesion and headlong dramatic thrust of the original, shorter version, it now contains even more glorious music. And singing. And what singing! Talvela was an accomplished singer and experienced Boris by the time he got around to recording the role, and it shows. Perhaps his initial scene, proclaiming his, ahem, sorrowful soul does not mix the perfect blend of false humility and grand ambition as perfectly as others, but he more than makes up for any shortcomings later when trying to comfort his daughter Xenia and while slowly losing his sanity with the visions of the slain young tsarevitch. Indeed, his descent into madness is simply captivating and expertly sung. His final scene of torment and ultimately death is also exceptional, though the whole thing ends just a bit too abruptly. Yes, Talvela makes a fine Boris, though better can be had.
As much may not be the case for Nicolai Gedda’s Dimitri. Gedda is in top form (or something approaching it) in this role. His voice is so smooth and beautiful here that one can do nothing but focus on him when he is present. In the full length scene with Pimen at the beginning discussing the fate of the tsarevitch, he is simply wonderful, pulling out all of the traits of the devious Pretender just about perfectly. If he perhaps lacks the appropriately mischievous tone in the Inn scene where he points the police to Varlaam (sung absolutely wonderfully by Auge Haugland), he more than makes up for it in Act III when singing with Marina. Here’s a singer that can move gracefully between treachery and lovelorn confusion with effortless aplomb. In this version, Dimiti gets a lot of voice time. Thank goodness; Gedda makes the work something to truly enjoy.
Of the remaining singers, special mention must surely go to Bozena Kinasz’s Marina. Her tone is beautiful and full, her control splendid, and her characterization excellent. Her selfish dreaming and devious scheming are all brought out with amazing clarity. Whether singing with Rangoni or seducing the Pretender, she is on target. And did I mention her tone is beautiful? She is a joy to listen to for sound alone. Thankfully, she has some long passages, so one can revel in her voice. The other singers vary in quality somewhat, as one might expect, and though some may not be especially memorable, none are outright awful.
That leaves the orchestral playing, choral singing, and conducting. All are excellent or better. The orchestra play well, indeed. The strings, while not the richest, warmest, or cleanest in the world, handle the swelling climaxes with assurance and can float the most delectable tremolandos as needed. Screechiness certainly never pops up. The winds, too, ably handle the score, as with the lovely and delicate return of the Pretender motif led by the clarinet in Act III, Scene 2. (Methinks I heard a germ of Janacek therein.) The chorus is also up to the task, which is essential in this opera. They handle the Russian language well enough (or so I think, but I don’t speak Russian) and can belt out the power or sing in a more controlled fashion as needed.
So that leaves Semkow. He does a fine job. He starts the work out with a driven, urgent Russian People motif (as I like to call it; musicologists no doubt call it something else), and throughout leads a measured reading with the intent of offering maximum contrast with the climaxes. Perhaps he could have tightened things up a bit in Act IV, and maybe he could have opted to rebalance those garish cymbal crashes in Act III (or eliminated them altogether in what would have been a fully justified change to the score), but overall he does things right. With the score as presented here, one gets to here even more Mussorgsky, which is always a good thing. While one could never say he is an orchestrator on the same level as Wagner or even Janacek, he always makes the music and words serve the story. If some traces of external influence can be detected – most notably some Lohengrin – and some miscalculations mar an otherwise superb score, all of the shortcomings are relatively minor, except for those cymbal crashes, and the cumulative effect is powerful and appropriate to the story. No, this version does not match up to the 1869 version for ultimate dramatic intensity, and no, Semkow cannot really challenge Abbado or Gergiev as a conductor, but that never detracts from an excellent performance. I’m certainly glad I revisited it. I will do so again in the future.
Claudio Abbado, 1872-74 Version (1993)
I figured it was about time I listen to another version of this mighty opera, but to spice things up a bit, I decided to buy another version. The obvious choice was Claudio Abbado’s 1993 studio recording with the Berlin Philharmonic on Sony. Abbado’s 1978 La Scala set is, or was, possibly my favorite all-rounder, but it is in relatively poor sound, so I surmised that a more recent version in top quality sound might be as good. My expectations were pretty much met. I can say that I have a new favorite all-rounder. But it is imperfect.
First, one must dispense with the mix of versions Abbado opts for. Overall, his choice seems to make for the best version. After the 1869 version, of course. Abbado uses the later 1872-74 score, but he adds in Pimen’s recounting of the dead tsarevich in Act I, and he throws in the 1869 scene between the Idiot and Boris to open Act IV and closes the work in the Kromy forest, where the clownish monks Varlaam and Missail from Act I reappear as vicious rabble-rousers, prodding the crowd to attack Jesuits as the Idiot bemoans the fate of Russia. All else is as described in prior reviews.
Now to the performance: it’s brilliant. By the time Abbado got around to recording this set, he’d led a half dozen productions and concerts of the work, and his familiarity with the piece shows. He’s in no hurry at any time. That doesn’t mean he relies on slow tempi, not at all, but he knows just when to let up on the speed and volume, or conversely when to hammer a point home. Let’s start with the opening. While he opens less forcefully that Semkow, he allows the police officer to be more distinct and the chorus to be more concerned with the events to come. They are, after all, awaiting the new king. Why wouldn’t they be concerned? What if he’s a tyrant? (Thankfully, Russia has had precious few of those.) The buildup to the arrival of the title character is perfectly paced and just tense enough, but Anatoly Kotcherga’s proclamation that his soul is sad is not quite what it should be. It’s good, but it could have been better. Abbado then concludes the opening Prologue with the choral and orchestral forces playing at full tilt. It’s quite satisfying.
The first act benefits from Samuel Ramey’s Pimen, his voice well controlled and appealing. Is he too smooth and not Slavic-sounding enough? Perhaps, but that matters little. Sergei Larin’s Grigory is quite good, too, though he definitely suffers in comparison to Nicolai Gedda, particularly later on. But in the monastery, with the two men contemplating the history of Russia, the fate of the tsarevich, and the possibility that Grigory is possibly more than just the Pretender but the real deal, well, it’s all fine and dandy. The second scene in the Inn is well played, the comic elements well timed, and the singers all sing well. Another successful act down.
The second act starts out with a humanized Czar fathering his children, consoling poor Xenia over the loss of her husband, and encouraging young Fyodor in his studies so as to ensure he makes a fine Czar. Kotcherga does extremely well here, and Valentina Valente and Liliana Nichiteanu are fine as the sister and brother, respectively. But the focal point of the act is when Boris goes nuts, and again, Kotcherga does quite well. Why does the sinister Shuisky prod him so? (For power, you say?) Well, it works: Kotcherga sings the hallucinatory passages well enough, and if perhaps he lacks just that last little bit of desperation, he makes up for it by never sounding hard on the ear. This is one distraught monarch.
So now on to the third act, and here is where Abbado shines, and Sergei Larin’s disadvantage becomes obvious. First the great: Abbado reveals just how beautiful some of the music in this score is. He also manages to lead the more raucous music of the second scene without it sounding at all garish, and he relegates the cymbal crashes to secondary status, much to my delight. As with his Falstaff from a few years later, he leads the Berlin band in some exquisite, delicate playing at the most opportune times, yet he never lets anything drag or sag. One can revel in the loveliness. Never more so then when Grigory sings of being in love with the scheming Marina. But one longs for the gorgeous tone of Gedda in these lovelorn moments. Larin is good, but when one has heard the best, good – hell, even great – just doesn’t excite. Now Marjana Lipovsek makes a superb Marina, combining attractive tone (if perhaps not ideally beautiful) with an assured delivery, and just a hint of nastiness. It’s not inconceivable that an erstwhile monk and now scheming would-be usurper would want her.
Anyhoo, Act IV starts with the interesting little interaction between the Czar and the Idiot, where the latter states quite emphatically that he cannot pray for a murderer. But the tsarevich is alive? Hmmm. Well, the second scene again centers on Kotcherga, and he dies a nice, operatic death. One can sense the anguish and suffering, but then one realizes he’s a murderous regent. Who cares if he dies, really? Well, an opera fan should, because it makes for a doozy. Again, Kotcherga lacks that last degree of intensity in his death throes, but this is a mere trifle of a complaint. The final scene in the Kromy forest is something of an afterthought, perhaps, but it fits quite well with all of the treachery and suffering and nastiness inherent in the work. Abbado drives this scene through swiftly and powerfully.
I suppose a few words on sound are appropriate. Though over a decade old, the sound is absolutely top flight. Clarity, detail, weight, dynamics: all are presented as well as anyone could ever hope for. It’s certainly the best sounding version I’ve heard.
Yes, this recording is a resounding success. But. There is a but. This recording was made during the fat times in the classical recording industry, and the forces involved all had plenty of time to get everything right. Not one note is missed, not one passage if rough-hewn. Indeed, perhaps that is the only potentially serious complaint: Abbado lavishes so much attention and love on the work, and the Berlin Philharmonic sound so lustrous and beautiful, that some of the rough edges are smoothed out. It doesn’t detract from the work, really – I can’t say that a sophisticated, perfectly executed recording is in any way a liability – but it doesn’t sound, well, Russian enough at times. It lacks that extra energy and intensity that Abbado brings in his live set, as well. Don’t get me wrong, if I was forced to choose only one version of this opera, this would most likely be it. But one version simply will not suffice. There are other truths to be told. Well, I’ve got two more version to sit through. Those truths shall be revealed soon enough.
Claudio Abbado, 1872-74 Version (1978)
I started jonesin’. I needed another hit of this opera. With only two versions left, the choice should have been relatively easy. It was. I figured I should revisit Claudio Abbado’s first run-through of the work from 1978, when he was still busy leading La Scala. A good choice. The recording itself is a pirate job. My copy is on Myto, though other incarnations are available. Production values are not of the highest order, but more on that later.
To the version used: it’s exactly the same one Abbado used in 1993. ‘Nuff said.
To the cast: it’s a mix of some big names and La Scala regulars, with the highlight being Nicolai Ghiaurov in the title role. Among other notable singers are Philip Langridge as Shuisky, the same role he sang for Abbado on the Sony set, Ruggero Raimondi in the relatively small though still important role of Varlaam, and John Shirley Quirk as Rangoni. To round out the major roles, Mihayl Svetlev sings the part of the Grigory and Lucia Valentini Terrani portrays Marina. It is a variable cast to be sure, and the standard La Scala singers in the secondary roles adds to this variability. But more on that later.
Now to the performance: overall, it’s superb. One need only listen to the slightly elongated bassoon notes that segue smoothly and flawlessly to the orchestra to hear what Abbado has to offer. He combines great flexibility in phrasing and tempi to a rigorous command of his orchestra, and to a lesser extent the chorus, to energize the piece. Indeed, after the police officer’s angrier and more daunting than normal lecture to the crowd, the crowd and orchestra emerge as a powerful entity, perhaps a bit anxious about what they will soon witness, yet still powerful in their combined numbers. In other words, Abbado delivers a mighty Russian People Motif of suitably operatic persuasion. Alas, the production values hamper the initial entry of the masses: distortion and momentary break-up mar this wonderful moment. Not enough to derail the proceedings, mind you, but more than I’d like. The maestro works everyone into something of a lather as he builds up the tension for the arrival of the newly empowered Czar. And when that moment arrives, Nicolai Ghiaurov delivers the goods. His soul is sad, indeed! Okay, he’s playing to the crowd, but there is a somber grandeur in his delivery that none of the other singers up to this point match. Alas, he sounds as though he is rather far back on the stage, but this matters not a bit. The prologue is finished in superb fashion and makes one wait eagerly for what is to come.
As Act I unfolds, I must confess that some of the singing is not up to the Berlin set. Nicola Ghiuselev’s Pimen, while good, just is not up to Samuel Ramey’s take, and Mihayl Svetlev makes a suitably youthful but not exceptionally pleasant Grigory. The back and forth between the two to open the Act is done well enough, with a suitable amount of tension and darkness and intrigue, but I wanted some better singing. The Inn scene is relatively better, but more because of the obvious energy created by the live performance than the singing. The Hostess is really rather drab and unappealing, but the humor is there and the slight tinge of menace when the police arrive makes it worthwhile.
Act II sees the return of the big man and his family, and as in prior versions, the Czar comes off as much more human when speaking with his daughter and son, though neither are especially memorable here. No, the focus of this act is when Boris has his little nervous breakdown after being prodded by Shuisky. This entire scene is delivered remarkably well. The sparks fly between the forceful and energetic Shuisky and the wary, harried Czar. When Boris has had enough and yells, appropriately, “Enough!” Ghiaurov sounds tormented and angry, and Abbado brings the ominous, descending string figuration back with whipcrack speed and intensity. The rest of the scene is a dark descent into delirium. This is how it should be done.
Act III comes off reasonably well, with Shirley Quirk’s Rangoni a devious sort, and Terrani's Marina every bit his match. Alas, Terrani’s voice, in particular, is not so pleasing. She can generate some intensely sung notes, but I find her tone a bit wanting in the attractiveness department. Mihayl Svetlev’s singing is even more disappointing in this regard. When Grigory sings of his love for Marina, he cannot even match Sergei Larin let alone Nicolai Gedda. The youthful sounding voices of the two lovers (if that’s what they really are) is something of an off-set, but me, I prefer more beautiful singing here. At least Abbado delivers a beautiful rendition of the music.
Act IV once again starts with the Idiot essentially condemning the Czar, and then Boris goes before the Boyars to die. And die a satisfying death he does. Once again, some real operatic heat is generated when Langridge and Ghiaurov are on stage, and when the spotlight is on Ghiaurov, he shines. His death is agonizing and nicely dramatic. The final Kromy Forest scene is dispatched with greater swiftness and strength than the Berlin recording, but all is a bit less technically secure.
Indeed, that is a short-coming throughout. Though the La Scala forces acquit themselves very well, this is a live performance and contains a number of slips that the studio effort doesn’t have. That’s not a bad thing really, it just is. A bit more of a disappointment stems from the choral contributions. The La Scala chorus lacks the precision and polish that Abbado gets from the various ensembles in the later recording. And some of the singers are clearly not up on either Russian pronunciation or style. Near the beginning, Luigi de Corato sings Shchelkalov’s brief passage in a bel canto style not really fitting for this work. A few similar incidents occur here and there. Fortunately, these occurrences are easily overlooked. Less easily overlooked is the recording quality. While not atrocious, it’s not very good for its time, and in many places the orchestra overpowers the singers, balances are off, and some singers are so far back on the stage that one must strain to hear them.
So, in sum, the Berlin recording offers better playing, better singing overall, and better sound than this early effort. That should make it the slam-dunk winner. Not quite. Don’t get me wrong – I prefer the Berlin recording – but this one offers that something special that only a live performance can deliver, rough edges and all. In fact, that’s it: the rough edges work in this piece. No, it’s still not “Russian” enough, but the more rough-hewn sound world actually helps things along a bit. Some of the specific short-comings are not the most pleasant things to hear, but the overall effect is acceptable and useful. My guess is that I’ll stick with the Sony set most of the time, but I’ll pull this one out from time to time for a rawer experience. ‘Tis very good, but not great.
Valery Gergiev, 1872-74 Version
I figured it was time I finished my little survey, so Valery Gergiev’s recording of the revised 1872 version got its turn. It took me a while because, truth be told, I’m not wild about this recording. I initially tried to listen to it about three or so weeks ago, but I couldn’t get very far. This time I managed to listen to the whole thing, but my attention wandered, and I had to read some magazines to pass the time on occasion. Why? Well, there are couple of reasons. First of all, this revised version, when played straight, is really the least satisfying version around. While the Third Act and final Kromy Forest scene are added, the portion of Act I where Pimen talks about seeing the tsarevich with Grigory is cut, and the scene where the Idiot confronts Boris is cut. Those are big cuts, at least for me.
The bigger problem is with the recording itself. While well played and well sung, it’s all, well, boring. Very little emotion is involved. On a number of occasions, all involved seem intent on putting on a purposeful tour-de-force scene while not considering the dramatic whole. The Innkeeper’s aria is a case in point. Well played by the orchestra, and technically well sung by Liubov Sokolova, it lacks purpose. The final Kromy scene is even less enticing: one hears the “extras,” but they sound like cardboard cutouts, not a chorus focused on delivering a dramatic ending. Too, some of the singers are not what I want. Vladimir Vaneev in the lead is perhaps my least favorite Boris. When he proclaims his soul is sad, where is the Ghiarovian false piety? When he sings to his children, he sounds too young and too unfatherly. When he goes mad, it’s not terrifying. (And Gergiev ends the scene somewhat limply.) His death aria is not agonized; it’s somewhat agonizing. Technically, he’s very good. Perhaps he’s too good. He’s obviously either reasonably young for the role, or he has found the secret to maintaining a youthful voice well into middle age. While that’s not a downside – hell Bryn Terfel made it work splendidly in Falstaff – here, in this opera, with this character, it doesn’t work as well. While the other Kirov singers all perform admirably, no one really captured my fancy. But then I was a bit bored, so perhaps I missed something.
Adding to all of this is Gergiev’s conducting. In the shorter version, his terse, direct, perhaps a bit unnuanced direction helps. It lends a greater drive to the taut, powerful drama. Here, it doesn’t help. While he opens the piece forcefully enough, and while he leads his Kirov forces in a technically assured reading, it all sounds a bit too slick at times. Yes, he sounds more “Russian” than Abbado, but he doesn’t sound as interesting. Act III suffers the most. Whereas Abbado deploys nearly infinite flexibility and acute textural sensitivity to the wondrous music Mussorgsky wrote, Gergiev often sounds coarse and blunt. Perhaps this is more authentically Russian, but it’s certainly not as entertaining or beautiful. I guess I’ll take a more Italianate approach here. It doesn’t help that Olga Borodina’s Marina and Vladimir Galusin’s Grigory don’t compare very favorably to the best singers to occupy the roles. Their diction and command of the singing is never in doubt, but there musical attractiveness is. To top it all off, the slightly hard digital sound does no one any favors. (I had to listen at a lower than normal volume throughout.)
I don’t mean to brutalize the recording. As a monument to the Kirov’s abilities, it’s something. But I find it somewhat unenjoyable. I crave Claudio Abbado’s perfect marriage of refinement, alertness, and power. Gergiev’s reading is sure to please those who favor or seek a more direct, sharper, edgier sound and performance. Some of the music-making really is first rate, I want to make that clear. The opening scene, for instance, is powerful and offers hopes of a great recording. That never materializes. I want more than what is on offer. I want Boris Godunov delivered as an operatic whole: strong yet nuanced playing; assured and characterful singing; dramatic unity. As I said, Gergiev’s approach works splendidly in the 1869 version. For a more complete picture, Claudio Abbado reigns supreme.