Sunday, 5 May 2013

Review: Mussorgsky - Complete Songs - Boris Christoff - 1955-57 (EMI, 3CD, 1989)

Modest Mussorgsky
Complete Songs
EMI References CHS 7 63025 2

CD 1 (57:14)
  1. Где ты, звездочка? / Where Art Thou, Little Star? 19
  2. Веселый час / The Joyous Hour 2
  3. „Отчего, скажи, душа-девица?” / Tell me why, O Maid 2
  4. Листья шумели уныло / The Leaves Were Sadly Rustling 3
  5. Много есть у меня теремов / I am Rich in Palaces 2
  6. „Что вам слова любви” / For You, the Words of Love 4
  7. Песнь Саула перед боем / King Saul 5
  8. Песнь старца / Song of the Old Man 6
  9. „Но если-бы с тобою я встретится могла.” / We Parted Proudly 7
  10.  Дуют ветры, ветры буйные / The Winds are Howling 2
  11.  Ночь / Night 8
  12.  Калистратушка / Calistratus 9
  13.  Песнь балеарца / Balearic Song 1
  14.  Молитва / A Prayer 10
  15.  Отверженная / The Cast-off Woman 11
  16.  Колыбельная песня / Sleep, Son of Peasants 12
  17.  Малютка / Mignonne 3

CD 2 (66:51)
  1. Желание / Desire 13
  2. Гопак / Gopak 14
  3. Светик Савишна / Savishna 1
  4. Семинарист / The Seminarist 1
  5. Еврейская песня / Hebrew Song 15
  6. Стрекотунья белобока / The Magpie 8
  7. По грибы / Seeking Mushrooms 16
  8. Пирушка / Piruchka (The Feast) 2
  9. Озорник / The Street-Urchin 1
  10.  Козел / The He-Goat 1
  11.  По над Доном сад цветет / By the River Don 2
  12.  Классик / The Classic 1
  13.  Сиротка / The Orphan 1
  14.  Детская песенка / A Children’s Song 16
  15.  С няней (Детская 1) / With Nursey (The Nursery, I) 1
  16.  В углу (Детская 2) / In the Corner (The Nursery, II) 1
  17.  Жук (Детская 3) / The Beetle (The Nursery, III) 1
  18.  С куклой (Детская 4) / With the Doll (The Nursery, IV) 1
  19.  На сон грядущий (Детская 5) / Evening Prayer (The Nursery, V) 1
  20.  Поехал на палочке (Детская 6) / The Hobby-Horse (The Nursery, VI) 1
  21.  Кот Матрос (Детская 7) / The Cat “Sailor” (The Nursery, VII) 1
  22.  Колыбельная Ерёмушки / Eriomushka’s Cradle Song 9
  23.  Раёк / The Puppet-show 1
  24.  Вечерняя песенка / Evening Song 3
  25.  „Он смерть нашёл” Баллада / The Forsaken One 17

CD 3 (67:57)
  1. В четырех стенах (Без солнца 1) / Within Four Walls (Sunless, I) 17
  2. „Меня ты в толпе бе узнала” (Без солнца 2) / Thine Eyes in the Crowd Ne’er Perceived Me (Sunless, II) 17
  3. Окончен праздный, шумный день (Без солнца 3) / The Useless Day is Over (Sunless, III) 17
  4. „Скучай” (Без солнца 4) / Ennui (Sunless, IV) 17
  5. Элегия (Без солнца 5) / Elegy (Sunless, V) 17
  6. Над рекой (Без солнца 6) / On the River (Sunless, VI) 17
  7. Трепак (Песни и пляски смерти 1) / Trepak (Songs and Dances of Death, I) 17
  8. Колыбельная (Песни и пляски смерти 2) / Cradle Song (Songs and Dances of Death, II) 17
  9. Серенада (Песни и пляски смерти 3) / Serenade (Songs and Dances of Death, III) 17
  10.  Полководец (Песни и пляски смерти 4) / The Warrior-Captain (Songs and Dances of Death, IV) 17
  11.  Злая смерть (Надгробное Письмо) / Cruel Death 1
  12.  Непонятная / The Misunderstood One 1
  13.  Не Божим громом горе ударило / Misfortune 18
  14.  Горними тихо летела душа небесами / The Spirit of Heaven 18
  15.  „Ой, честь-ли то молодцу лен прясти?” / What Fellow is Fitted for Weaving or Spinning? 18
  16.  Рассевается, расступается / Trouble 18
  17.  Видение / A Vision 17
  18.  Спесь / Master Haughty 18
  19.  Странник / The Wanderer 3
  20.  На Днепре / On the Dnieper 14
  21.  Песня Мефистофеля в погребке Ауєрбаха / Song of Mephistopheles 6

Boris Christoff, bass

Alexandre Labinsky, piano
Gerald Moore, piano (CD 1: 4)
Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française / Georges Tzipine (CD 1: 7, 10; CD 2: 2; CD 3: 7-10, 21)

Recorded: Paris, Salle de la Mutualité, III.1955 – IX.1957; London, Abbey Road Studio No. 3, 3.III.1951 (CD 1: 4)

Texts by:
1 Modest Mussorgsky
2 Aleksey Koltsov
3 Aleksey Pleshcheyev
4 Aleksandr Ammosov
5 Lord Byron (Hebrew Melodies), translated by Ivan Kozlov
6 Goethe
- Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, unknown translation (CD 1: 8)
- Faust, translation by Aleksandr Strugovshchikov (CD 3: 21)
7 Vasily Kurochkin
8 Aleksandr Pushkin
9 Nikolay Nekrasov
10 Mikhail Lermontov
11 Anonymous
12 Aleksandr Ostrovsky
13 Heinrich Heine, translation by Lev Mey
14 Taras Shevchenko, translation by Lev Mey (CD 2: 2) or unknown translation (CD 3: 20)
15 The Bible, from Song of Songs, adaptation by Lev Mey
16 Lev Mey
17 Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov
18 Aleksey Tolstoy (1817-1875), not to be confused with the other Aleksey Tolstoy (1883-1945), much less with the author of War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)
19 Nikolay Grekov.


This box-set is doubtless one of the greatest glories in recording history. The outstanding singer-actor Boris Christoff, supreme Philip II and Boris Godunov but also a highly acclaimed lieder singer, was the first (and still the only one?) to record the complete songs of Modest Mussorgsky. Today it is really hard to imagine what a revolution that must have been in the late 1950s when this music was far less popular than it is today (indeed, even today it is not at all popular). EMI officials were understandably worried about recording four LPs with music of such low commercial value. They needn't have. The set was a huge success and has become legendary since. It is odd, to say the least, that it had to wait until 1989 to be released on CD for the first time (see above) and then went out-of-print for quite a few years until it was recently brought back in the catalogues (see the last few paragraphs below).

The emotional range of these songs, to begin with, is nothing short of astonishing. Sunless and Songs and Dances of Death, both with dark and brooding texts by Golenishchev-Kutuzov, are surely among the most emotionally shattering music ever created. In a complete contrast, Nursery is a cycle of playful children songs, full of careless fun. To give another extreme comparison as an example, "The Song of the Flea" (with Russian translation from Goethe's Faust as text) is a boisterous Mephistophelian fable, complete with demonic laughter, as far removed from the lyrical tenderness of ''Night'' and ''Where art thou, Little Star'' as you can possibly imagine. It is difficult to believe that all these songs were composed by the same man.

Believe it or not, the vast range of the songs is fully matched by the artistry of Boris Christoff. I venture to claim that here he reveals the tremendous range of his voice more completely than in any opera part. It covers the whole gamut from the most thunderous fortissimos to the softest pianissimos. The latter, in particular, are quite extraordinary and sometimes almost literally breath-taking: you just have to hold your breath while listening. I have never heard anything like that in his operatic recordings, nor in those of any other singer. Let's listen to some examples, shall we?

It is a shame that there are still people who choose to degrade Boris' recording of Songs and Dances of Death because he used the "corrupt" orchestrations of Rimsky-Korsakov and not Mussorgsky's original accompaniments for solo piano. (The same stupid accusation has also been raised against his two studio recordings of Boris Godunov, for they too use Rimsky-Korsakov's later version rather than Mussorgsky's original.) Nowadays the Songs are performed in the still later and much more colourful orchestration of Shostakovich, but no one turns a hair. The rationale behind the practice, as defended by Boris himself, is that there is some evidence to suppose that Mussorgsky wanted to orchestrate the songs himself.

Song and Dances of Death provide the ultimate challenge for any singer. Even in the world of lieder, chauvinistically and incorrectly often confined to German examples, you seldom find such a perfect fusion of powerful text and music that illuminates every single word of it. Each of the four poems is a creepy story in itself, with plot, characters and atmosphere of its own. The only thing they have in common is the protagonist: Death herself. It requires an artistic versatility of a very high order, not to mention an expressive voice and perfect diction, to do justice to these masterpieces of musical horror. I have yet to hear anyone even remotely in the same league as Boris when it comes to a peasant frozen in the snow ("Trepak"), a dying child and a hysterical mother ("Cradle Song"), the death of a beautiful maiden ("Serenade"), and the mass slaughter on the battlefield, visited afterwards by Death ("The Warrior-Captain") who wants to create her own army of marching corpses.

There are so many unforgettable moments in these performances: there are, indeed, no others. Take for example the characterisation. Death does appear in all four songs. But she is dramatically different in each case. In ''Trepak'' she is positively seductive, relentlessly luring the poor peasant into her eternal sleep. In ''Cradle Song'' she is calm and rather quiet, but totally merciless in her desire to take the child's life. ''Serenade'' is the most remarkable transformation of Death. There is no doubt that she falls in love with the maiden, for she all but raves about her beauty, yet in the end she is, again, adamant. And in ''The Warrior-Captain'' there is exultation, because Death always wins in the end. All this, and a great deal more, is of course inherent in Mussorgsky's music. But it takes a great voice and a great singer to bring it out fully and convincingly.

The staggering expressive range of Boris Christoff has been remarked upon and written about countless times. Nowhere else has it been more powerfully expressed than in this set of recordings. Examples are numerous. Take Songs… again. The opening of ''Serenade'' is one of the finest instances of his fabulous mezza voce, that singing with ''half voice'' that creates a mysterious atmosphere as nothing else could. The ending of ''Trepak'' is another episode when the quietness of the singing is superbly evocative. You hear Death's ravishing descriptions of summer, sun and flying doves, and you know that the peasant is no longer alive. In the end of ''Serenade'' the word ''Молчи'' (''Be silent'') is very appropriately whispered, in ''Cradle Song'' the growing anxiety of the mother is conveyed by a tightly controlled amount of histrionics. In any case, there is no effect for effect's sake. Each shade and each intonation serves its own dramatic purpose.

(By the way, Boris makes one very interesting change in the very end of ''Serenade''. The words ''Ты моя!'' (''You are mine! '') are sung a good deal higher than what Mussorgsky wrote. Nowadays such modifications of the composer's original text are considered sacrilegious, and yet, oddly enough, this finale is sometimes adopted even by modern singers. It is difficult to argue against its rightness. The effect is chilling yet natural.)

The other two cycles are extremely different. Both of them are on much smaller scale than Songs…., and concentrate on a limited range of moods and on an intimate scale. But here the similarities between them end. The most cheerful parts of Sunless are suffused with profound melancholy. This is often extended and deepened to bleak depression and desolation of enormous magnitude. The longest songs in this cycle are no more than three and a half minutes long, but no one in his right mind would call them slight: a good example that length is not at all the same thing as content. Nursery is a set of children songs, full of naughty games and hilarious adventures. Boris lightens his voice as never before or since. It is impossible to convince yourself that this voice comes from the same man who is famous for a dark, cavernous, and menacing bass. The pieces are musically slight, but the characterisation is exquisite.

Even within a single three-minute song there is often an emotional range of staggering dimensions. From the vast number of examples I would like to say a few words only about two special favourites.

''Where art thou, Little Star?'' is usually dismissed as a mere product of Mussorgsky's youth. This is very foolish. As Boris Christoff has remarked himself, the composer started producing music of the highest quality from the very beginning of his artistic career. Mussorgsky's genius must have been more innate than that of many other great composers. If he could compose such a song at the age of 18, he appears to have taken no time to develop his gifts. They sprang fully formed, ready to create miracles. The text of ''Where art thou, Little Star?'', by one Nikolay Grekov, is a short and simple but very moving tale. The music underlies every single word of it with precision and power many a composer never reached even in their maturity. So does Boris Christoff whose voice, trite as this may sound, makes the music come alive. The simplicity in this case is a complete illusion. It hides bottomless depths of passion and suffering.

''Night'' is an even more extraordinary recording. In a set of nearly unparalleled scope and consistency, it is peerless. The wonderfully intimate, if not indeed erotic, lyrics by Pushkin have an almost frightening intensity. (Interestingly enough, the text is actually an extremely free paraphrase of original; just about only the last two and half lines are Pushkin’s own; the rest was, presumably, written by Mussorgsky.) Apart from one passionate outburst in the middle, the whole song is sung pianissimo yet with perfect diction that renders every word clear. The end is one of those heavenly pianissimi that I have never heard from another bass. Absolutely the same is true about the enunciation and the flexibility of the voice. Boris, as always, is in a class of his own.

And yet, there are still persons, perhaps unhealthily occupied with the importance of size, who insist on preaching that he was, as far as volume is concerned, a ''small voice''. True, of course. But why care about trifles which, moreover, don't matter in the least on recordings? Besides, what these people miss is to recognise that the limited power of Boris' voice, limited at least in comparison with the most booming basses from the last century, was an essential part of his genius. A good case can be made that the extraordinary, not to say unique, agility of his voice coupled with the perfectly clear pronunciation of every word is incompatible with the ''booming school''. But these, I repeat, are speculative trifles not worth bothering about.

Whatever the nature of the text, and there is quite a diversity by at least eighteen poets represented here, you may rest assured that Mussorgsky made the most of it. He and Boris Christoff elevate each and every poem to another, much higher level of expression and perception. This is true even of the simplest settings – which, of course, are more complex than they seem at first hearing. For instance, ''The Song of Saul'' is a magnificent example of epic grandeur, but there is in the middle a short tender episode whose importance should not be underestimated. Boris must indeed have identified deeply with passages like ''О, мой сын! Мой наследник'' (''Heir to my royalty, son of my heart!'' in Byron's original) for they sound very close to some parts of the ''Farewell and Death of Boris Godunov'', a war-horse Boris sang countless times in concert, not to mention about 150 performances of the complete part on the opera stage.

Looking at what I've written above I see that Deryck Cooke was dead right when he once remarked that words are poor things – except in the hands of a poet. Though even the greatest poetry cannot express feelings with anything like the power – and the precision – of music, when great poetry is allied to great music the results are not to be missed. This is the case with the vast majority of these 63 songs, and even when the literary foundations are tainted with mediocrity, the music certainly is not. It is useless and stupid of me to continue trying to describe the indescribable. Music should be listened to and experienced personally. Writing about it is, at best, a pleasant diversion. So let me in the end concentrate, perhaps more fruitfully, on more down-to-earth matters.

The lavish presentation must be mentioned, for it is without precedent. EMI has done a marvellous job the only drawback of which is the omission of the liner notes written personally by the performer that accompanied the original LP release in the 1950s. This is a pity because Boris did an extensive research in order to place each song in the context of Mussorgsky's life and to trace its composition, publication and the current whereabouts of the surviving manuscripts. In the otherwise indifferent biographical portrait
Boris Christoff (1991) by Atanas Bozhkoff there are generous quotations from these notes, and most of them very fascinating. For example, it's amazing to learn that Mussorgsky apparently contemplated orchestration of ''Where art thou, Little Star?'' because in the score he added above the opening theme the word "dudka" (cor anglais). It fits the music to perfection.

But regrettable as the omission of the original liner notes may be, there is an ample compensation. The booklet contains absolutely all lyrics in four different languages (Russian, English, French, German). What's more, for first and last time I saw all Russian lyrics printed, not in some ugly transliterations, but in Cyrillic! It was a very pleasant surprise that EMI took the trouble to do that, just as it was a great dismay to see the other great box-set in Boris' recorded legacy (5 CDs with Russian songs by Glinka, Borodine, Cui, Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff as well as some traditional songs, released by EMI in 1992), because it lacks any lyrics whatsoever! Otherwise the booklet of Mussorgsky's Complete Songs contains only one short, but very perceptive, essay by John Steane. But the lyrics are the thing. Never, absolutely never, should you listen to these songs without an intimate knowledge of the texts. You'd miss a great deal. Believe me.

Speaking of the texts, it may be noted that the booklet occasionally suffers from extreme sloppiness. “Night” is the darkest example. You’re given Pushkin’s 1823 original word for word:

Мой голос для тебя и ласковый и томный
Тревожит поздное молчанье ночи тeмной.
Близ ложа моего печальная свеча
Горит; мои стихи, сливаясь и журча,
Текут, ручьи любви, текут, полны тобою.
Во тьме твои глаза блистают предо мною,
Мне улыбаются, и звуки слышу я:
Мой друг, мой нежный друг... люблю... твоя... твоя!...

This is meltingly beautiful. But it is not what you hear on the recording. Apparently Mussorgsky did set this text to music in 1864, but later, perhaps on the same year, perhaps as late as 1868, he revised the song completely, changing some 80% of the original text in the process. You can compare the scores here. Boris Christoff recorded the second version. Its text, taken from the score, is the following:

Твой образ ласковый так полн очарованья,
Так манит к себе, так обольщает,
Тревожа сон мой тихий в час полночи безмолвной...
И мнится, шепчешь ты, твои слова сливаясь и журча,
Чистой струкой, надо мною в ночной тиши играют,
Полны любви, полны отрады,
Полны всей силы, чар волшебной неги и забвенья.
Во тьме ночной, в полночный час,
Твои глаза блистают предо мной,
Мне... мне улыбаются и звуки, звуки слышу я:
Мой друг, мой нежный друг! люблю тебя, твоя, твоя.

That’s pretty different than Pushkin’s original, is it! Unless the greatest Russian poet of all time wrote two versions himself, we must credit Mussorgsky for this flight of poetic imagination.

The sound is excellent for its age. It may not be quite so clean and crisp as in the later remastering from the Great Recordings of 20th Century series (only one CD with the most famous songs has ever been released), but it is deeper and more sonorous. One caveat to keep in mind, however. The orchestra is terribly recorded: flat, muffled, distant; when loud enough, usually brittle and harsh. Not many are likely to care about that with such a voice. Yet it should be noted that only in ''The Winds are Howling'' are there any faint traces of dynamic range. Rimsky-Korsakov's orchestrations of Songs and Dances of Death suffer from an appalling lack of detail.

Finally, a note about re-issues. Not so long ago, a few years I believe, Andromeda did re-issue the complete set at a great budget price. This I haven't seen, but as far as it can be ascertained online it contains exactly the same recordings; whether any new remastering was done remains elusive, but probably it was not. Of course this new release lacks completely the fine documentation of the EMI set. So be careful what you're buying. Andromeda is the best choice to save quite a bit of money – if it can still be found at all, which I doubt But considering the importance of the texts and the lavish presentation of the original set, it is strongly recommended to spend more money, but to get the real thing. It is worth it. If you are a real fan of Boris and Modest, of course.

The great news is that EMI has just released (February 2013) an 11 CDs box-set entirely dedicated to Boris Christoff and titled The Mighty Boris. It is part of their Icon series and the documentation is every bit as scanty as the price is attractive. The really beautiful thing is that the first eight discs encompass Mussorgsky's complete songs (discussed above) and the five CDs with Russian songs by various composers (mentioned above), that is virtually Boris' complete recorded legacy in terms of Russian lieder. This is most certainly an excellent opportunity to get both box-sets together; even if the presentation leaves a lot to be desired, the low price more than compensates for that.

There is another fairly recently released box-set, Boris Christoff: Devil, Monk, and Czar (10 CDs), that includes a sizable portion of the complete recording of Mussorgsky's songs, including all three cycles but, inexplicably, omitting both ''Night'' and ''Where art thou, Little Star?''. The rest is occupied by an extensive selection of operatic arias and ensembles, many of them taken from various complete studio recordings. Despite the promiscuous selection, the set is an excellent introduction to Boris Christoff's art. It lives up to its somewhat grandiloquent name, and though already scarce it can still be found for a pittance.

And some great news more. There is a spectacular site on the Internet where you can find for free an enormous variety of lieder texts together with transliterations, translations and lots of helpful information on the sources. Mussorgsky's oeuvre can be accessed here.


Scans from the booklet:

The liner notes by John Steane are excellent:

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