Robert J Farr
Before setting off on this review I should perhaps declare an interest. I grew up in a household where there were 78s of Chaliapin and Christoff as well as Björling, Schipa and Gigli. My father had heard Chaliapin at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in the 1930s. A working man, he could only afford a cheap seat. Seeing vacant seats at the front of the stalls the great basso drew those from the back to the vacant front seats, my father included. Impressed as I might be by those bass voices on the 78s, it was the emergence of this Boris, Faust and Don Carlo on LP, all from HMV, that really gripped me. Above all it was Christoff’s voice and interpretations on those recordings that impressed and I determined that one day I would see and hear him in the theatre. I had to wait twenty years but it was worth it. His Tsar Boris was vocally magnificent, his voice sonorous, superbly coloured and controlled and wholly musical. The death scene was overwhelming in its pathos and drama. Christoff’s identification with, and characterisation of Boris were total. He knew when to move, stop, gesture or roll his eyes to achieve maximum histrionic effect with minimum movement. His vocal qualities and histrionic involvement are clearly to be heard on this 1952 recording and on the stereo remake of 1962. They have not been bettered on any of the versions that have emerged since although I greatly admire Ghiaurov on Decca under Karajan. Although I find greater depth in Christoff’s 1962 interpretation than here it is only marginal and is more than compensated for by Dobrowen’s conducting.
Issay Dobrowen more than any other kept this opera alive outside Russia. He accompanied Christoff in the latter’s early visits to the studio and which are to be heard on EMI Références 7 64252 2. Dobrowen’s taut command of the episodic scenes that constitute this work is total and contributes significantly to the performance. Appreciation of Dobrowen’s interpretation is greatly aided by Mark Obert-Thorn’s re-mastering. Of course it does not have the sonic impact of the stereo remake, particularly in the Coronation Scene, but it is a considerable achievement nonetheless.
There are several doublings up in the casting. But what has always been contentious for the purist is Christoff’s taking of the three major roles, Boris himself, Pimen and Varlaam. He did the same in the stereo remake. At the start of Pimen’s Monologue (CD 1 tr. 9) Christoff shades his voice superbly in portraying the old monk. A listener new to the recording would not relate the singer to Tsar Boris’s calling for God’s blessing on his reign in the previous scene (tr. 7). But as the Monologue progresses and Pimen becomes more agitated that differentiation is less. Most importantly there is no difficulty of differentiation when Pimen visits Boris to recount his story (CD 3 tr. 10). Likewise there is similarity of vocal timbre between Christoff’s Tsar and his portrayal of the rollicking Varlaam in the Inn scene (CD 1 trs. 14-20). Besotted by Christoff I may be, but I cannot but recognise one of the century’s greatest singing actors portraying each character with full resonant involved interpretation. In my view this triplication of roles was fully justified by the results.
Elsewhere in this consummate performance the singing of the young Kim Borg as the slimy Rangoni and Schelkelov is impressive both vocally and in characterisation. The same can be said of Nicolai Gedda as Grigory, the false Dmitry (CD 2 tr. 18). These parts were less well sung and portrayed on the stereo remake. The singing of Borg and the characterful idiomatically sung Marina of Eugenia Zareska give more zest to the Polish scene than is often the case in the theatre as well as on record (CD 2 trs. 13-17). Here again the pace of Dobrowen’s conducting is vital, which is not to decry Eugenia Zareska’s creamy, steady tones in her aria (trs. 14-15). Needless to say the chorus are vibrant and idiomatic although those in more recent versions are significantly more sonorous and full-bodied in tone.
The appendix of six studio recorded tracks of Chaliapin as Boris, recorded in 1926 and 1931, are welcome. The 1926 Entry of Boris (CD 3 tr.14), his 1931 Monologue (tr. 15) and Clock Scene (tr. 16) appeared on EMI Références CDH 7610092. The studio recordings of Chaliapin’s portrayal of Boris’s Farewell and Prayer (tr. 17) and his Death are new to me. They make an interesting comparison with his live Covent Garden interpretation of 1928 on the Guild Label (LINK to my review). More relevantly they allow immediate comparison with Christoff. Listening to the two greatest interpreters of Tsar Boris on disc, particularly in these scenes, makes for interesting hour or so.
The Naxos booklet is of the usual high standard with a detailed background to the work’s composition and Rimsky’s derivation of a performing edition. There are welcome biographies of the leading cast members and an excellent track-related synopsis. Given the quality of sound obtained by Mark Obert-Thorn and the additional appendices, I have no hesitation in recommending this restoration of a seminal performance.