This is, of course, the Great Russian Bass Roles with ‘bonus tracks’ ... and substantial bonuses they are, too. But gripes about product description apart, this disc could serve as an excellent introduction to the wonderful Boris Christoff, caught between 1949 and 1954.
The two Prince Igor arias that open the present recital reveal an artist entirely at home here, from the joys of Galitsky’s Aria to Kontchak’s attempts to put his prisoner (Igor) at ease. In both, accompaniments are astonishingly on-the-ball. Christoff’s pitching is magnificent, his breath control astonishing (the long note at around 4’50 in Kontchak’s aria, for example). And just how natural is the famous melody from the ‘Polovtsian Dances’ at 6’20?
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The Philharmonia’s brass comes to the fore in Rimsky’s ‘Song of the Viking Guest’, dark and superbly blended against seething, brooding strings, while heart-felt lyricism is the order of the day for Prince Gremin’s Aria (‘Everyone knows love on earth’) from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.
As we approach Boris, we approach core Christoff territory. The positively outrageous orchestra that begins Varlaam’s ‘In the town off Kazan’ sets the scene for a portrayal from Christoff that is full of character – not least in the final joyful shouts. The next two tracks take us to the heart of Boris, the Monologue and the 'Farewell and Death'. For the Monologue, Christoff and Dobrowen (with the French National Radio Orchestra here), keep things moving to telling effect. Christoff’s legato is without parallel and he can ‘float’ his voice memorably. Even though Dobrowen keeps it moving along, it remains breathtaking. Fear and (later) utmost delicacy are the defining characteristics of the Farewell and Death. Note that Regis give a timing for this of 1’51. It is of course 11’51 – no-one, but no-one, snuffs it in opera that quickly.
Christoff is spine-tingling in this excerpt, his cries of ‘Boze’ completely believable; the chorus (Covent Garden) is also magnificent.
And so to Verdi. Silva’s ‘Che mai veggio! … Infin che un brando vindice’ (Ernani) is heartfelt, Christoff’s confidence of line nothing short of magnificent. More famous perhaps is King Philip’s aria from Don Carlo where Christoff has competition in the form of an almost literally singing solo cello. Christoff gives us despair rather than self-pity. This is very profound and very, very touching, and technically well-nigh perfect (listen to Christoff’s focused line at ‘Dormirò sol …’). Superb.
‘Ave Signor!’ (Boito) provides relief in the form of patter. Both Boito excerpts are dramatically true. Perhaps only the Gounod gives cause for slight complaint – the surface of the disc Regis has used seems crackly.
The Mussorgsky ‘Field-Marshal Death’ is the only track accompanied by piano; with Gerald Moore at the stool, who’s complaining? The final ‘Song of the Volga Boatmen’ is surely known to everybody. Christoff sings it as if the very World itself is on his shoulders!
Magnificent. If anyone needs an introduction to the great Boris Christoff, this should be it.
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