'Boris Godunov' Gets the Berlin Treatment

Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to Calendar

The eagerly awaited "authentic version" from Berlin of Mussorgsky's own "Boris Godunov," as distinct from Rimsky-Korsakov's gentrification of the composer's rough-hewn original, is here.

Sony's recording (58977, 3 CDs) preceded concert performances last fall that reportedly restored the beleaguered Claudio Abbado to supreme power over the supposedly faltering Berlin Philharmonic.

German critics hailed the event as the greatest thing to have happened to music in Berlin since, well, since the late Herbert von Karajan. And, as this recording evidences, the orchestra is sounding rather the way it sounded under Karajan, while Abbado's overall interpretation bears more resemblances to Karajan's (recorded with the Vienna Philharmonic, not the Berlin) than might be expected.

Regarding the musical text, let's (over)simplify the matter by saying that this is a collation of three "original" editions, and that Rimsky's editorial presence is absent.

Authentic or otherwise, what emerges from these superbly recorded CDs is well-ordered and stunningly well-played. Yet it is, in sum, a good deal less of an event than what we were led to expect by the ecstatic post-performance word from Germany.

First, that glorious orchestra is overly prominent, even in the choruses. How much of this is attributable to the conductor is difficult to tell. Furthermore, the excellent choral ensemble, provided by the Slovak Philharmonic and Berlin Radio, sounds too polished for what is intended to represent, variously, "the Russian people" and the rabble.

The governing intelligence here is Abbado's. He brings to the project an admirable ability to organize large forces and a complex musical structure. And we hear too much of both: organization and structure, the mechanics of the process.


What emerges is a "Boris" that, while favoring the letter of Mussorgsky's rough score over Rimsky's relatively smooth one, finds the conductor and his colleagues rounding off many of Mussorgsky edges and angles, thereby evoking the Rimsky spirit. The performance is at times curiously slack as well, starting with the crunchy choruses of the prologue, which are subjected to fussy dynamics, and when the volume level is markedly reduced, the tempo can slow alarmingly.

The entries of the first solo singers, the Police Officer and Shchelkalov, sung by Albert Shagidullin and Mikhail Krutikov, both excellent, fail to make their usual impact for being so unincisively--although tempos are fast--accompanied.

Abbado's singers, like their conductor, do a lot of reflecting. While it's nice to be shown by Anatoly Kotcherga, the possessor of a seemingly huge and clearly pliant instrument, what a caring family man Boris Godunov is, it's not what the opera or the character are really about. People don't pay big bucks to hear Daddy Boris sing lullabies.

There are livelier performances from tenor Sergei Larin, whose well-sung Grigory projects the right edge of fanaticism. With Larin, the ubiquitous Samuel Ramey as Pimen, and here Abbado's mobile pacing and firm shaping, the opening scene of Act I becomes more than usually engrossing.

Another plus is the subtly menacing Rangoni of Sergei Leiferkus, but Marjana Lipovsek's Marina is more tough than seductive, and Gleb Nikolsky lacks the rhythmic acuity to make the most of Varlaam's showstopping opportunities.

The recently reissued (EMI 54377, 3 CDs) 1977 recording of the "original version" (in fact a different conflation from Sony's of non-Rimsky editions), decently played by the Polish Radio Orchestra/Katowice and in--not inappropriately--comparatively raw sonics, is to these ears a more potent dramatic and musical experience.

Jerzy Semkow is not the most inspiring of conductors, but he has a thrillingly uninhibited chorus, that of the Polish Radio in Krakow, and a cast of vocal paragons, led by the late Martti Talvela as a dignified yet sufficiently edgy Boris, Leonard Mroz's deep, dark Pimen, Nicolai Gedda's visionary Grigory, the lusty Varlaam of Aage Haugland and the smoldering Marina of Bozena Kinasz.

EMI's "Boris Godunov" may not be the last word on the subject either, but it remains a good show, devoid of slickness, and a feast of first-rate singing.*

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World