MUSSORGSKY: Khovanshchina / Mario Petri, bass (Ivan Khovansky); Amedeo Berdini, tenor (Andrey Khovansky); Mirto Picchi, tenor (Vasily Golitsyn); Gianpiero Malaspina, bass-baritone (Shaklovity); Boris Christoff, bass (Dosifey); Irene Companéez, mezzo-soprano (Marfa); Herbert Handt, tenor (Scribe); Jolanda Mancini, soprano (Emma); Dmitri Lopatto, baritone (Varsonofiev); Andrea Mineo, tenor (Kutscha); Dimitri Lopatto, tenor (Strelets I); Giorgio Canello, bass (Strelets II); RAI Rome Chorus & Orchestra; Artur Rodziński, conductor / Datum DAT12320 (live: Rome, June 14, 1958)
The reviews I’ve read of this recording when it was previously issued on Myto (it also appeared on Stradivarius and VAI) tended to be disparaging. Most of the complaints came from the fact that Rodziński had to trim about 20 minutes’ worth of music from the opera, the worst cut being the complete omission of Susanna in Act III, but one must remember that Mussorgsky left this score in a mess when he died.
My regular readers know that my preference is for works to be presented complete, so I sympathize to a point with those who carp about cut scenes, but once in a great while an abridged performance comes along that is just so good in every respect that I make an exception. Such was the case with Ferenc Fricsay’s live Handel Samson in German, and also with Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s late-1970s TV performance of Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea with Eric Tappy and Rachel Yakar, and this is true, for me, of this Khovanshchina. I’ve listened to some of the later recordings that everyone else find so wonderful, particularly the Abbado version on DG, and found them wan and lackluster.
Thus for me, the glories of this recording far outweigh its few weaknesses, and this even includes the fact that it’s sung in Italian. Among these is the chance to hear Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration, replaced the very next year (1959) by Dmitri Shostakovich’s muddy, plodding score which is now the standard performing edition. Another reason I like it is the intense emotional commitment of every singer, undoubtedly helped by the presence of both Rodziński and Boris Christoff, even though the latter’s Act I monologue sounds more snarly than subtle (but then again, Christoff was a snarly singer by nature). Even when the singers aren’t at their vocal best, like tenor Mirto Picchi (normally a very reliable singer), they’re in there pitching and giving their all. Irene Companéez, whose only studio recording seems to have been the 1959 La Gioconda with Maria Callas on which she sang La Cieca—and not very subtly (she also sang Malcolm in a 1958 live performance of La Donna del Lago under Tullio Serafin)—is much more in character here, displaying an almost Slavic sound to her voice. The fifth act is particularly impressive in every respect, with both Christoff and Companéez at their dramatic best.
Yet as some other critics have pointed out, the real star of this performance is Rodziński. Unlike some of his other Italian opera broadcasts, such as the Tannhäuser, he pulled everything together here with Toscanini-like tension and clarity. Nothing was allowed to sag dramatically, and he drew some extraordinary playing out of the RAI Orchestra. He was also able to browbeat the Rome chorus into singing musically, on pitch and without screeching, and conducted in a way that the rhythmic “spring” of the orchestra leads both the solo singers and chorus. Once the ear adjusts to the mono radio sound, you’ll find it is consistently clear and decently balanced. As in their previous Rodziński releases, Datum has rolled back a lot of the surface noise found on other pressings, but in the process has dulled the top end somewhat. A two to three DB boost in the treble works wonders, however, and makes this a worthwhile acquisition.
There’s a reason why this performance keeps getting reissued, and believe me, the sound quality isn’t it. It’s just a great performance that stands the test of time.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley