Nagano’s New 1869 “Boris”

BIS-2320 - cover

MUSSORGSKY: Boris Godunov (1869 version) / Alexander Tsymbalyuk, bs (Boris); Maxim Paster, ten (Shuisky); Mika Kares, bs (Pimen); Sergei Skorokhodov, ten (Grigory/False Dimitri); Vasily Ladyuk, bar (Shchelkalov); Okka von der Damerau, mezzo (Innkeeper); Boris Stepanov, ten (Missail); Alexey Tikhomirov, bs (Varlaam); Hanna Husáhr, sop (Xenia); Johanna Rudström, mezzo (Fyodor); Margarita Nekrasova, mezzo (Nurse); Boris Stepanov, ten (Simpleton); Göteborg Opera Chorus; Brunnsbo Music Classes Children’s Chorus; Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra; Kent Nagano, cond / Bis SACD-2320

Most people are familiar with Boris Godunov in its 1872 revised version, whether with the Rimsky-Korsakov or the original Mussorgsky orchestration. I know at least one opera lover who prefers the Rimsky version because it’s more colorful. Although I agree with him that it’s more colorful, I prefer the original Mussorgsky because it’s not colorful; the composer wanted those dark, earth colors and not the gleam and glitz that Rimsky put into it, although I do like Rimsky’s orchestration of the “Polish act” because that’s supposed to be the West (so to speak) and Western music is more colorful.

The original 1869 version is a very rare animal, particularly on records. The only other studio recording of this version I know of is Valery Gergiev’s 1998 release on Philips, a five-CD set that included both the 1869 and 1872 editions of the score. I disliked Gergiev’s performance of the 1872 version because he used Vladimir Vaneev, a comic bass, for the all-important role of Boris, and Vaneev didn’t deliver, whereas the much more appropriate-sounding Nikolai Putilin sang the title role on the 1869 version, and did so pretty well.

For this recording, a real rarity for Bis since they’re not a label that issues many complete operas of any sort, the highly talented Kent Nagano has assembled a really fine cast, although I feel that Alexander Tsymbalyuk, despite his rich, well-controlled voice, doesn’t quite inhabit Boris as well as such past masters of the role as Chaliapin, Riezen, Talvela, Rossi-Lemeni or Lloyd. He’s close, but not quite as three-dimensional in his emotions as those others were.

This is, however, my only reservation about this recording. In general, Naganno’s tempi are faster than Gergiev’s, which helps bind the scenes together quite well. Disc one of the Gergiev set ran 62:48 whereas Nagano’s runs 62:24, and disc two ran 64:04 compared to 62:50. But to his credit, Gergiev’s pacing and inflections moved the music forward, and one didn’t feel that any scene really dragged at all.

This new recording also has much more spectacular sound. Bis engineers Carl Talbot and Matthias Spitzbarth did a fantastic job of balancing everything, from the smallest soloist to the biggest choral scene, with impeccable mastery of the sound space. Granted, it sounds like a performance given in a very large but empty hall with a lot of natural reverb, but every voice and instrument is crystal-clear.

I also need to point out that the chorus is absolutely superb, and in many respects the chorus is the real protagonist of the opera. Boris is merely a homicidal, power-mad bully who screws things up for the people for several years. The chorus must be able to express so many emotions in this opera—pleading, joy, sorrow, elation, resignation—that it takes a master chorus director to get all the best out of them, and this Tecwyn Evans does masterfully. The children’s chorus is also exceptionally fine.

Although there are some people who prefer the 1869 version of the opera because it is tighter and less “sprawling” than the revision, I have my reservations. Yes, the scene at St. Basil Cathedral, which is where Boris encounters the Simpleton or Holy Fool in this version, is more dramatic than the later, revised Kromy Forest scene, but in a sense I like the Simpleton being the last voice one hears in the opera, a voice crying in the wilderness, weeping for the fate of the Russian people. Also, this earlier version has a very abbreviated version of the “Clock Scene,” which is, in my opinion, one of the most inspired masterpieces in the 1872 version. The scene with Boris, his children and Shuisky ends here with a fairly quiet and unremarkable monologue. Yes, there are strengths in this earlier version, but for me it’s a very interesting alternate, not the preferred version of the opera.

Now, on to the performance per se.

This is almost a Boris in 3D. You can hear EVERYTHING, the smallest orchestral voice and detail, as if you were in a front-row seat next to the orchestra. Thanks to the engineering, you get a real feeling of occasion in the Coronation Scene and the scene in Pimen’s cell has a very “churchy” atmosphere. Basso Mika Kares sings Pimen with a rich tone and solid voice, but again just gets a little under the skin of the character. (In case you’re wondering, the best Pimen I ever saw or heard was Paul Plishka.) Yet Kares varies his tone in his long opening monologue and uses dynamic inflections to sustain the listener’s interest. Tenor Sergei Skorokhodov, as Grigory, has a magnificent voice, not only bright but with some richness in it. He is superior to Viktor Lutsuk on the Gergiev recording both vocally and interpretively. Nagano builds some fine climaxes behind Pimen in his duet with Grigory, and binds the phrases together wonderfully. The entire scene “moves” very well, and the distant chorus near the end has an almost ghostly sound, which is fully appropriate.

And wonder of wonders, the Innkeeper (Okka von der Damerau) has a pretty good voice for once. Most casting directors hire a “character” singer for this role, and they usually sound brittle and a bit unsteady, but not here. Our Varlaam, Alexey Tikhomirov, has a brighter and somewhat lighter voice than our Boris and Pimen, which is good because you can distinguish him from the others, and he has a ball with his aria “In the town of Kazan.” Boris Stepanov, our Missail, has a nice, bright tenor voice.

This may sound odd, but I’m not so sure that I liked the fact that our Xenia and Fyodor had such beautiful, feminine-sounding voices. I’m used to them sounding more like children than like mature women, as they do here, but they certainly sing very well and try to characterize their parts. The Nurse (Margarita Nekrasova) also has a splendid voice, and I’m OK with that, though again, you won’t hear voices this good in the opera house. Once again, Tsymbalyuk sings Boris in this scene with good energy, some drama and a superb voice, but just misses the character’s angst and his undercurrent of evil. Our Shuisky, Maxim Paster, is not as wheedling or sneaky-sounding as he’s supposed to be. Nagano again paces this long scene very well.

As I mentioned earlier, the St. Basil Cathedral scene is the best thing from this edition that did not survive the cut in 1872. When I saw this opera at the Metropolitan in 1975, conducted by Thomas Schippers (who did a tremendous job), the very strange edition they used was essentially the 1872 version with some of the music out of order and both the St. Basil Cathedral and Kromy Forest scenes. This was cobbled together by Rafael Kubelik before he quickly departed as the Met’s music director, and although Kubelik was a masterful opera conductor I still don’t know why he created such a strange version. A real strength here is tenor Boris Stepanov as the Simpleton. He really does an excellent job in this odd and complex character, not as good as Ivan Kozlovsky or Andrea Velis of sainted memory, but much better than most of those you hear. This is a real plus.

We now jump to the “Prayer and Death of Boris” scene, and here our Shuisky does some fine vocal acting. Our Boris tries his best, bless his heart, but it comes across—on records, at least, without the benefit of seeing him—a little “stagey.” But the notes indicate that he’s one of the youngest basses to ever sing Boris, so I’ll cut him some slack. Perhaps he needs to grow into the role.

Bottom line: If you already own Gergiev’s double-Boris set, you won’t really need this recording except for the spectacular sound, but if you don’t, don’t bother buying it because of the sub-par performance of the 1872 version. Rather, get this recording of the 1869 version and then download Gergiev’s superior performance of the 1872 edition, with Robert Lloyd as a fantastic Boris, from YouTube. You’ll be glad you did. Nagano does a heck of a good job, and the sound will just blow you away.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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2 thoughts on “Nagano’s New 1869 “Boris”

  1. josep maria mir says:

    In any case, there is no a single faithful recording of 1872 original version, not even Gergiev: this one uses the 69 version -like any other conductor!- for the 1st scene (the epilogue after pilgrims’ choir) and doesn’t respect the five cuts of Boris’s death scene (nobody does).


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