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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Boris Godunov, Opera in a prologue and four Acts [156:34]
(Revised version of 1872, further revised and orchestrated by Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov)
Boris Godunov - Miroslav Čangalović (bass-baritone)
Grigori (False Dmitry/Pretender) - Miroslav Brajnik (tenor)
Marina Mnishek - Melanija Bugarinović (mezzo-soprano)
Pimen - Branko Pivnički (bass)
Varlaam - Žarko Cvejić (bass)
Shuisky - Stephan Andrashevich (tenor)
Missail - Stepan Vukashevich (tenor)
Fyodor Borisovich - Sofiya Janković (mezzo-soprano)
Xenia Borisovich - Zlata Sesardić (soprano)
Hostess - Biserka Kalučić (mezzo-soprano)
Simpleton - Nicola Jančić (tenor)
Andrej Shchelkalov – Dušan Popović (baritone)
Nikitich – Ilija Gligorijević (tenor)
Kruschchov – Zhika Milosavliević (tenor)
Lewicki – Dragomir Ninković (bass)
Czernikowski – Ivam Murgaški (bass)
Belgrade National Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Krešimir Baranović
rec. March-April 1955, National Theatre, Zagreb, Croatia. ADD mono
Notes, track-list and synopsis provided in the booklet
ELOQUENCE 4826883 [75:00 + 81:34]

This is the third issue in the series of seven operas recorded by Decca in Croatia in 1955 (review ~ review) and its first issue on CD. Of course, this is the Rimsky version, which was the norm until the sentiment swung back towards performing the opera more or less the way Mussorgsky left it; Karajan’s superb recording headed by Ghiaurov made in 1970 used Rimsky and Mark Ermler’s, made as late as 1985, was still using the Rimsky/Ippolitov-Ivanov orchestration, but in 1976 Semkow’s Boris, starring Talvela, had for the first time in a studio recording used the original bleaker, balder instrumentation. If you want everything Mussorgsky wrote then Gergiev’s 5 CD set on Philips offering the 1869 original and the 1872 revision remains fascinating and indispensable, but some still prefer Rimsky’s richer realisation – which is almost a different opera.

I find I can enjoy any version if it is well performed and while the inclusion of the St Basil scene is welcome, its omission is not so detrimental to our pleasure and you will not find it here, so there is no confrontation between the Simpleton and Boris outside the cathedral. However, we do get to meet the Simpleton in the KromÔ Forest scene, which is here placed at the beginning of Act 4 and is given a rousing account. The first scene of the Polish Act is cut, so we get only the scene between Grigori and Marina in the castle gardens – no Rangoni. That rump of the Polish scene is in fact one of the best passages in this recording and makes me wish we could have had the whole thing.

Although the Belgrade opera had some fine singers on its roster, it is surely too much to expect this recording to come up to the standards of the best Bolshoi and prestige-label releases, especially as subsequent studio recordings starred more incontrovertibly great basses like George London, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Martti Talvela and Evgeny Nesterenko. Only Boris Christoff accomplished the extraordinary self-aggrandising feat of singing all three major bass roles in one recording not once but twice; here the casting is conventional, with three different basses. I was not at all surprised to see the name of Žarko Cvejić as Varlaam, as in my previous review of Prince Igor from the same stable I described him in the dual roles of Galitsky and Konchak, as “no Boris Christoff; he is frequently hoarse, coarse and unsteady – but he certainly sounds the part of a drunken, lecherous reprobate” and in my review of Kovanshchina I call his Prince Ivan “rough” and say it “could be steadier”. The Dosifey there, Miroslav Čangalović, sings the eponymous lead role here; he is firm and expressive and has an essentially beautiful voice but I do not find him to be especially charismatic or individual, and at times I would like to hear more weight in his bass. He provides some imaginative interpretative touches, such as the nice sneer on “Aha! Shuisky Knyaz!” and delivers a good “Clock Scene”, full of terror and hysteria, and his death is powerfully and feelingly narrated but I cannot say that he always rivets my attention on his singing in the manner of the best exponents of the role.

You may hear from the very opening that the mono sound is rather thin, boxy and distant; disappointing, as it seems that the change in recording location from Belgrade to Zagreb meant that the engineering reverted to mono rather than the stereo we had for the previous two recordings and obviously the crowd scenes suffer, despite the commitment of the chorus. You may also her that that the orchestra is not the finest, but the raw, squawking oboes create a suitably disconcerting introduction to the enforced supplication from the lusty crowd to Boris to accept the throne and the coronation bells are effective. Dušan Popović sings strongly and sensitively as Shchelkalov.

Pimen is recorded much more closely than the Prologue which gives his scene more intimacy. Branko Pivnički does not have the most distinguished of basses, but he’s resonant, avuncular and competent, if a bit lumpy. The Pretender, Miroslav Brajnik, has a vibrant, incisive tenor which neatly suggests Grigori’s fanaticism. Melanija Bugarinović’s Marina makes only a brief appearance but her Wagnerian mezzo-soprano makes quite an impact and the concluding duet with Grigori is a belter. The Hostess is lively and characterful; the Simpleton suitably plangent and poignant; the conducting throughout is unobtrusive – except for Baranović’s audible groans! - and well-paced.

For all that there are some good things in this recording, I cannot really see why it has claims above the many others in better sound with a more consistently arresting cast.

Ralph Moore

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