Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Review: Boris Christoff - Live Recordings, 1953-1980 - Legato Classics


Well, that's definitely a strange edition. The "booklet" is highly uninformative and doesn't give even the names of the orchestras and conductors Boris Christoff sang with when these performances were recorded. Only the year is given and how reliable it is no one, or at least I, can't say. The sound quality is pretty awful which is understandable when we're talking about live recordings from the 1950s, but it's quite surprising to find it in a live concert recording of 1980 (if you believe the year of course). Inside there is something like an essay in which mediocre writing, to say the least, is coupled with amazing factual errors like Boris' year of birth which has a five-year gap with reality.

Despite all these severe disadvantages, this CD is simply a treasure. But I must point out that it is only for great fans of Boris Christoff, only for persons to whom his unique voice and artistic personality are much more than just a diversion. If you are one of those people, you must have this CD and I am quite sure you won't care at all about the poor sound quality. Because here, together with some live recordings of Boris that can be found on at least several other editions, are some almost unique things that, to the best of my belief, cannot be found anywhere else.

Since I've spoken of years, if the year 1980 for the last three tracks is to be believed (and for my own part I think it is accurate), these three masterpieces – "Studia Il Passo... Come Dal Ciel Precipita", from Verdi's Macbeth, "Ella Giammai M'amo... Dormiro Sol", from Verdi's Don Carlo, and the "Farewell and Death of Boris", from Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov – cannot have been taken from anywhere else but from Boris Christoff's recital in Carnegie Hall which included also Mussorgsky's greatest masterpiece among his song cycles, namely Songs and Dances of Death (unfortunately not included on this CD). I think this recital was released on CD a good many years ago, it's quite a long time since it's out of print, and second-hand copies are simply unobtainable. As for Boris' performances, he is incomparable as ever. Of course his voice doesn't sound as in the 1950s, that's physically impossible, but it still has the unique dark timbre and an unsurpassed ability for shade and colour.

The other real treasure here are the excerpts from Nabucco recorded in the early 1960s, probably in Chicago's Lyric Opera. Not only is an unforgettable experience to hear Boris Christoff performing these extremely difficult arias on the stage, but I don't know that any other performance of "Vieni, O Levita... Tu Sul Labbro" with his voice exists on record. Unfortunately, he never made commercial recording of the opera, nor does a complete live recording exist. Again, despite the very poor sound, Boris Christoff's voice and artistry shine.

All other arias on this CD are not so hard to find as the aforementioned, but that's no reason why one should enjoy them less. It's notable that "Che mai vegg'io...", from Verdi's Ernani, is taken from the radio performance of the complete opera in 1968; it is not the 1951 studio recording of the aria alone. The sound is excellent for the age and with stunning cabaletta (although without the repetition, of course).

Also worthy of note is that the track titled "I Search for Truth" from Rimsky-Korsakov: The Prophet" is actually the song "Prophet" by Rimsky-Korsakov, not an aria from an opera of the same name as one might be misled to believe. It's one of the most beautiful Russian songs ever composed, with an exceptionally powerful text by Alexander Pushkin. Boris made an absolutely unsurpassable studio recording of it in 1963/64 with the excellent Andre Cluytens on the rostrum. It's quite a thrill to hear him here, ten years earlier and in concert, performing the same song. The interpretation is distinctly different but still miraculous. The tempo is, at least in some parts, significantly faster, yet grandeur and the drama are retained.

In short, if for you Boris Christoff is just another great bass voice like many another singer, you are likely not to like these recordings and be frankly, and justly, outraged at the sound quality. If Boris Christoff's voice and personality are a deep part of your own mentality, I am quite sure you are not going to be sorry for purchasing this CD.

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