Notes and Editorial Reviews
The original version of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov has been steadily gaining ground over the years, though that of course, with this of all works, begs the question of what is the original version. Nowadays, when few will be found to speak up for what Rimsky-Korsakov did, it is worth pointing out that he insisted that ''if ever the conclusion is arrived at that the original is better, worthier than my revision, mine will be discarded''. It should not be 'discarded'; perhaps we can now see it as a remarkable meeting of two major musical minds. Moreover, as Rimsky-Korsakov intended, his version helped to keep the opera alive in times before audiences could accept its astonishing originality. Record companies have tended to cling to Rimsky-Korsakov in this matter; the two new versions do not.
First, though, a reminder of the issues. Very briefly, in 1868–9 Mussorgsky submitted seven scenes to the Imperial Theatre—the Novodyevichy Monastery, Coronation, Pimen's Cell, the Inn, the Kremlin, St Basil's Cathedral, Death of Boris. When these were rejected, he made various revisions in 1872, adding a new Polish act in two scenes and substituting the final Kromy Forest scene for the St Basil's scene. This produces one incidental problem in that the yurodivy or 'simpleton' (there is no real translation, though ''holy fool'' is close) now appears with his sorrowful song both outside St Basil's and at the end; most performances accept this with a good grace, and it is certainly nothing but a pleasure to have Nicolai Gedda singing the prophetic little lament about the coming Time of Troubles so hauntingly.
Rostropovich includes all ten scenes, as is now customary, placing the St Basil's scene after the Polish act; and he uses as his text the edition by David Lloyd-Jones which has set a standard accepted even by the Russians. It is an affectionate performance, appreciative of detail and responsive to nuance, though at times (surprisingly from so powerful an artist as Rostropovich) short on vehemence. At the work's centre are Boris and the chorus. The chorus is not all that sharply characterized at the start, as the many-headed monster groups and regroups, and suffers from a less than steadily coherent recording. In the great climaxes, notably in the Coronation scene, the sound becomes cluttered and ugly. Ruggero Raimondi's Boris is sung firmly and lyrically. He responds to the elegance to be found in Mussorgsky's brief, speech-inflected phrases, and some scenes, notably his final exchanges with his son, are movingly done. The two great monologues—in the Lloyd-Jones translation, ''My soul is sad'' and ''I stand supreme in power''—are careful and reflective, but in their noble melancholy suggest Verdi's Philip II rather than the tormented Tsar. He also cannot resist an Italianate holding on to some notes for far longer than their written value. The Death scene is finely sung.
Of the other principal basses, Paul Plishka sings a grave, sober Pimen; Romuald Tesarowicz sounds rather too sober in Varlaam's drunken song, though he is graphic in the exchanges with the police and the Hostess. She is sung with splendid verve by Galina Vishnevskaya, tackling the song about the duck and all the earthy banter with much greater relish than she now seems to bring to Marina. The old caressing languor which once she gave the love music is gone, though she can still produce a formidable glint as she dictates her terms to the hapless Grigory. He is well characterized by Vyacheslav Polozov, pathetic here and elsewhere singing with a possessed fervour. There is a sly Shuisky from Kenneth Riegel and an oily Rangoni from Nikita Storoyev. Special mention must be made of a dazzling performance of Fyodor from a treble, Matthew Adam Fish: he seems to have no trouble with the Russian, and sets some of his seniors an example in how to characterize the music. The booklet includes a good essay on the work by Andre Lischke, and the text is rather weirdly set out with a parallel French and a new English translation, plus the original Russian on its own at the end."
-- John Warrack, Gramophone [6/1990]