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Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov / Karajan, Ghiaurov

Release Date: 10/10/2006 
Label:  Decca   Catalog #: 000747902   Spars Code: ADD 
Composer:  Modest Mussorgsky
Performer:  Biserka CvejikMilen PaunovNajejda DobrianovaAnton Diakov,   ... 
Conductor:  Herbert von Karajan
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Vienna Philharmonic OrchestraVienna State Opera ChorusSofia Radio Symphony Choir,   ... 
Number of Discs: 3 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 3 Hours 32 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Liner notes and libretto booklet in English with Russian transliteration.


MUSSORGSKY Boris Godunov Herbert von Karajan, cond; Galina Vishnevskaya ( Marina ); Nicolai Ghiaurov ( Boris Godunov ); Ludovic Spiess ( Grigory/Dmitri ); Martti Talvela ( Read more class="ARIAL12i">Pimen ); Anton Diakov ( Varlaam ); Aleksei Maslennikov ( Shuisky, Simpleton ); Zoltan Kélémén ( Rangoni ); Vienna St Op O & Ch DECCA 000747902 (3 CDs: 211:54 Text and Translation)

When it comes to the glories of recorded music, questions of authenticity can be as devastating as they are elusive. It is devastating when insistence on the “correct” score leads to the systematic neglect of performances seen lacking in matters of musicological correctness, even when they enshrine committed vocal performances of the highest order. These were my thoughts on hearing once again this resplendent 1970 recording of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov , reissued in the latest round of Decca’s “The Originals” series. The dramatic immediacy of this recording stakes a claim to a kind of authenticity that transcends mere matters of text, and it makes one regret that emphasis on “original orchestration” and “composer’s intentions” could have buried such a treasure.

Of course, the lack of a single definitive version of Mussorgsky’s one “completed” operatic masterpiece renders questions of authenticity particularly quixotic. The story is too complex to be recounted here, but it boils down to this: there exist two vastly different versions prepared for performance during the composer’s lifetime, and the later version was reworked and reorchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov, who felt that the composer’s grayish orchestration and idiosyncratic harmonizations were technical deficiencies in need of improvement. Moreover, certain ingredients of the earlier 1869 score were preserved in Rimsky’s version, along with his own executive decision to end the opera with Boris’s death rather than the chaotic revolution scene in the Kromy forest.

Ever since conductor and musicologist David Lloyd-Jones edited and brought Pavel Lamm’s edition to a wider circulation, the balance of Boris recordings has opted for something approaching Mussorgsky’s original scoring intentions. As Richard Taruskin has repeatedly pointed out, the resulting recordings are rarely as pure and “authentic” as they claim to be, conflating things that shouldn’t be conflated or retouching the scoring even when they might be claiming not to. So, buyer beware. Perhaps it is testimony to the resilience of this masterwork that it can sustain heavier intervention than practically any other work of its stature.

Karajan’s Boris is gloriously and vitally incorrect from a musicological perspective. And yet there has never been a recording quite like it, and hearing it again was like recovering a long-lost gem. In truth, it has never really gone away, and it was a recipient of a Penguin “Rosette” and other marks of general praise in the critical community. But there have also been no studio recordings of the Rimsky edition since Karajan’s recording hit the market.

This recording astounds with its clarity and brilliance. Each scene is beautifully shaped, the singing, even in the choruses, marked by clear Russian diction. It is a bright soundscape, even glaring at climaxes, such as in the Coronation Scene. Elsewhere, the additions of Rimsky’s pen come shining through: pizzicatos, in the inn scene and its extended coda, newly composed; shimmering strings; tam tams (echoing outside in the cell scene). There are times when Rimsky’s additions are more awkward than Mussorgsky’s original, as in the sporadic snare-drum punctuations and flutter-tongued flutes behind the Pretender’s act III speech describing his march on Moscow. There are countless other times, from the opening bars, in fact, where one might prefer Mussorgsky’s own dark sonorities. With Rimsky, we certainly get a “Day-Glo” Mussorgsky.

But what make this recording truly special are the solo voices and characterizations. Nicolai Ghiaurov invests the title role with his unique, complexly textured, and dominating voice. At that point in his career, he also possessed a ringing, even velvety legato. This is a full embodiment, and one of the finest things that great singer ever committed to records. How much feeling, weariness, ambition, anger, and nobility this voice conveyed at its prime!

Also strikingly good is the liquid-toned, baritonal Pretender of Ludovic Spiess. This Romanian tenor’s discography was not large, but he turns in one of the most vocally polished and driven Dmitris on record. Occasionally one can complain of his excessive reliance on crooning, Italianate sobs, but on balance his heroic realization of the role justifies Karajan’s selection of him to sing in Boris at the Salzburg festival.

Elsewhere, the recording is deeply cast. Galina Vishnevskaya was still at the peak of her vocal powers when she documented her Marina here, and the Pimen benefits from the black-voiced Martti Talvela, who soon after would emerge as one of the great Borises of his generation. Tenor Aleksei Maslennikov doubles in the roles of Shuisky and the Simpleton, a feat possible only in the studio, given their utter incompatibility on stage. He would later go on to score important successes in the Bulgarian recordings of Russian opera released stateside by Sony in the mid 1980s. He, like Spiess, tends toward crooning, but it is not intrusive here.

Karajan’s lush rubato and sometimes overly forceful and calculated direction will be unsettling to listeners who do not respond to romanticized readings of this masterpiece of realism. As total musical conceptions, I would recommend either Claudio Abbado’s 1994 recording of the work, with Anatoly Kotscherga in the title role (Sony 58977) or Valery Gergiev’s 1999 recording on Philips (462230), which has the added virtue of containing the closest thing we have to a recording of Mussorgsky’s original 1869 conception. And, of course, trumping everything is Gergiev’s soup-to-nuts compilation score on DVD, with bass Robert Lloyd headlining an otherwise all-Russian cast from the Mariinsky Theater. All of these options, though, employ conflations of Mussorgsky’s “original” scoring. For a completely different take of a tradition largely abandoned, there is nothing like this Karajan reissue.

FANFARE: Christopher Williams
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Works on This Recording

Boris Godunov by Modest Mussorgsky
Performer:  Biserka Cvejik (Mezzo Soprano), Milen Paunov (Tenor), Najejda Dobrianova (Soprano),
Anton Diakov (Bass), Galina Vishnevskaya (Soprano), Ludovic Spiess (Tenor),
Martti Talvela (Bass), Sabin Markov (Bass), Alexei Maslennikov (Tenor),
Olivera Miljakovic (Mezzo Soprano), Zoltan Kélémén (Bass), Margarita Lilowa (Mezzo Soprano),
Leo Heppe (Bass), Nicolai Ghiaurov (Bass)
Conductor:  Herbert von Karajan
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra,  Vienna State Opera Chorus,  Sofia Radio Symphony Choir  ... 
Period: Romantic 
Written: Russia 
Date of Recording: 11/1970 
Venue:  Live  Sofiensaal, Vienna, Austria 
Length: 211 Minutes 54 Secs. 
Language: Russian 
Notes: Orchestrated: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1906-08)
Composition written: Russia (1868 - 1872). 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 An Epic Performance January 22, 2014 By Henry S. (Springfield, VA) See All My Reviews "For any number of reasons, Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov is an important Russian opera, and this Decca Legendary Recordings interpretation is all one could ask for in terms of excellence of performance and overall artistic merit. A review of the comprehensive CD booklet notes is highly recommended, as it will give the listener some appreciation of Boris Godunov's place in the evolving Russian musical world in the turbulent years of the latter 19th century. The struggle between traditionalists and modernists/realists in Russian culture undoubtedly parallels political and social unrest as the Tsarist era slowly slid toward its ultimate overthrow and extinction in the early 20th century. Using a series of episodes from early 16th century Russian history, Mussorgsky's massive score touches on these issues in a powerful, stark, and yet beautiful musical statement. Thus, in my view, Western listeners should avoid the mistake of assessing Boris Godunov by Western standards (like we would apply when judging Wagner or Verdi, for example), because this opera simply operates with a different cultural paradigm. The main story concerns the psychological deterioration of Tsar Boris Godunov (Ivan the Terrible's eventual successor) in the face of a developing challenge from a 'pretender', the ambitious monk Gregory, posing as Ivan's presumably murdered son Dmitri. This central story line, however, is clearly augmented by other embedded nuances in the opera- the strength and virtue of the common Russian (as seen in several of the lesser characters and the power and brilliance of the peasant choruses), the vague yet palpable Russian nationalism identifiable throughout the work, and finally the tragic content of much of Russian history with its recurrent themes of absolute power, autocracy, bleakness and harshness of spirit. With these intellectual ingredients, Mussorgsky created a sensationally powerful musical drama, which underwent a number of revisions. Herbert von Karajan's 1970 recording of Boris Godunov with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and a superb lineup of singers uses the edition which Rimsky-Korsakov worked on, and his magical touch with orchestration clearly shows in this recording. As usual, the VPO's playing is nothing short of world class, and the choruses play a mighty role throughout (just listen to the awesome Coronation Chorus early in the opera as an example). In the principal roles, Nicolai Ghiaurov as Boris, Ludovic Spiess as Grigory (Dmitri), Galina Vishnevskaya as Marina, and Marti Talvela as Pimen, give compelling, authentic performances, as do the lesser characters. Decca's re-mastered analog sound is perfect- crystal clear with wide dynamics. In summary, this monumental recording is something no serious opera lover should miss. I have had my doubts about various other Russian operas, but not this one. It is a fabulous performance with massive 'gravitas' in the history of Russian music. Superb in every respect, I am ready to believe it deserves more than 5 stars. Highest recommendation!" Report Abuse
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