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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Khovanshchina (Opera in five acts; 1871-1880) [176:28]
Libretto by Modest Mussorgsky, completed and orchestrated by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Prince Ivan Khovansky - Žarko Cvejić (bass)
Prince Andrey Khovansky - Alexander Marinković (tenor)
Prince Vasily Golitsin - Drago Starc (tenor)
Shaklovity - Dušan Popović (bass-baritone)
Dosifey - Miroslav Čangalović (bass)
Marfa - Melanija Bugarinović (mezzo-soprano)
Susanna - Anita Mezetova (soprano)
A Scribe - Stepan Andrashevich (tenor)
Emma - Sofija Janković (soprano)
Varsonofiev - Zivojin Milosavljević (baritone)
Kuzka - Krsta Krstić (tenor)
Streshnev - Živojin Iovanović (tenor)
First Strelyets - Vladimir Popović (bass)
Second Strelyets - George Djurgevich (bass)
Third Strelyets - Živojin Iovanović (tenor)
Belgrade National Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Krešimir Baranović
rec. February 1955, House of Culture, Belgrade
Track listing, notes and synopsis; no libretto. ADD stereo
ELOQUENCE 4826893 [3 CDs: 176:16]

This is the second release in the series of seven stereo recordings made by Decca in 1955 with the Belgrade National Opera, appearing on CD for the first time. It is the third of only six studio recordings ever made; the first was conducted by Boris Khaikin in a vintage 1946 recording; there is another available on the Brilliant label from Sofia in 1971 conducted by Margaritov, the last was another all-Bulgarian affair made in 1989 under Tchakarov. There is a live composite performance also from Vienna in 1989 conducted by Abbado, which has its attractions but suffers from some wobbly bass singing and strenuous tenors.

When Mussorgsky died as a result of his alcoholism aged only 41 in 1881, although he had been working on Khovanshchina on and off since 1872, the music was only a torso. He left the score incomplete and in disarray: two of the Acts were unfinished, Act 4 was not orchestrated, the ordering of scenes was unclear and even the libretto was not finalised. No other opera except perhaps Don Carlo is so ambitious in its historical, political, religious and personal scope and it is a miracle that coherent performing editions have emerged from the wreckage. The complexity – at least for the average Western listener lacking historical, contextual knowledge – of the dark plot is, however, balanced by the simplicity of much of the music; its beauty keeps us constantly involved - not just the highly dramatic sung confrontations, glorious crowd scenes and set pieces, but also the folk elements and instrumental interludes such as the exquisite opening pages depicting sunrise over Moscow (metaphorically representing the Enlightenment effected by Peter the Great), the prayer concluding Act 1 with its great orchestral peroration, the introduction to Act 2 in Golitsyn's study and the exotic Persian dance in Act 4. The result of the recognition of his genius by subsequent Russian and Soviet composers is that we can choose between the Rimsky-Korsakov completion, as per this recording under review, or the version made by Shostakovich, which removed much of Rimsky’s additions and is closer to the composer’s original intentions or, as Abbado does, even substitute the final scene constructed by Stravinsky from themes and sketches for Shostakovich's conclusion. Nonetheless, the work has its longueurs for me; I tire of the extended choruses such as the conclusion to Act 3.

Rimsky Korsakov attenuated and domesticated the score’s eccentricities, so you might prefer Gergiev's Kirov version which uses Shostakovich’s version and is less starry but rather more of an ensemble effort, although I have read complaints of both soloists and chorus being dry-voiced compared with the competition. Others prefer Tchakarov's all-Bulgarian set which also has some starry names in the cast. I have not yet heard it in its entirety but judging from the clips the singing doesn't sound as impressive. It stars Nicolai Ghiaurov, perhaps a bit late in his career; he is heard to better advantage in a curiosity: the all-star live performance from La Scala in 1973 is in Italian and thus can hardly be a first recommendation for all its quality - and it does not use the grand final scene devised by Stravinsky but the less-admired Shostakovich one.

The sound here is clean, dry, early stereo - very acceptable, despite some papery background noise. The voices feature no star names remembered by us today but they are of quality – no wobblers, although Žarko Cvejić’s rough Prince Ivan could be steadier and more imposing and the Emma is a little shrill. Melanija Bugarinović has a rich, fruity, mature-sounding tone, more contralto than mezzo-soprano and the Shaklovity, Bass-baritone Dušan Popović is the most attractive singer here, making much of his Act 3 aria. Miroslav Čangalović is fine, too, even if his bass is not in the same elevated bracket as that of basses such as Reizen, Hines, Christoff, Talvela, Siepi and, Nesterenko, all of whom have sung the role. He sings movingly, however with emotion and intensity. The tenors here tend to be of the typically Slavic, cutting-edge variety and the chorus is competent, if sometimes a bit thin. The conducting is workmanlike if hardly as energised as I would sometimes like and the orchestra is merely adequate, being hardly sumptuous of tone. The grand final scene is a bit disappointing: it sags and drags a little and Bugarinović swoops up to high notes too much. It suggests that the Stravinsky ending is the better alternative.

Overall, this is a decent but not especially inspired performance.

Ralph Moore


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