Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Review: Boris Christoff - Recital - Golden Melodram 7.0005

What do you want first, the good news or the bad news?

The good news is that all performances on this CD are certainly by Boris Christoff, captured live in concert and very much in his prime. Considering the times and conditions, the sound quality is quite acceptable. It will give you absolutely no idea how the voice must have sounded live, but the unique timbre and the wealth of different nuances cannot possibly be mistaken. The orchestra is, for the most part, rough and muffled, but the sound has an agreeable amount of detail, sometimes even hints of dynamic range.

The bad news is the "presentation". This is worthy of no more than one star out one hundred. The "booklet" consists of track-listing only. Who produced and transferred the recordings, and from what sources, remains elusive. What's more, there are several years and/or conductors that are very fishy indeed, or at least they cannot be corroborated by Boris Christoff: La Vita, La Voce, L'arte (1996) by Carlo Curami and Maurizio Modugno, the most authoritative – indeed, the only one! – extensive study of Boris' "life, voice and art".

This is a CD for Christoff collectors only. But for them it is absolutely essential. It collects material from two live recitals which date from his absolute prime: Baden-Baden (1951) and Torino (1954), conducted by Ernest Bour and Alfredo Simonetto respectively. The former was recorded in, and broadcast from, the studios of SWF; the latter by RAI Torino. Well, at least this is what the "booklet" says. It remains uncertain how true this information is.

Now let's have a look at the track-list. My speculations about possible mistakes are based on the book of signori Curami and Modugno as well as on my own online research:

1. Rossini - Il Barbiere di Siviglia - "La calunnia e un venticello"
2. Verdi - Macbeth - Studio il passo... "Come dal ciel precipita"
3. Boito - Mefistofele - "Son lo spirito che nega"
4. Puccini - La Boheme - "Vecchia zimarra"
5. Bellini - La Sonnambula - "Vi ravviso o luoghi almeni"
Bour, Baden-Baden, 1951.

Well, at least two from the above arias – Rossini and Boito – don't seem to have been on the program of the concert in Baden-Baden. I am aware of three live recordings of "La calunnia" by Boris, in 1958, 1961 and 1976, but none of them is in Baden-Baden under the baton of Bour – but the second one was recorded in Torino with Alfredo Simonetto, although in 1961; it may just be the one included on this CD. The same 1961 concert also included the only live performance preserved for posterity of Mefistofele's frenetic ballade – unless Melodram have unearthed a rare gem indeed.

6. Verdi - Simon Boccanegra - "Il lacerato spirito... A te lestremo addio"
Simonetto, Torino, 1954.

Well, the only live recording of Fiesco's poignant monologue is one from Rome in 1954 with a conductor named Antonellini. Quite a discrepancy!

7. Verdi - I Vespri Sicilliani - "O tu Palermo"
8. Verdi - Don Carlo - "Ella giammai m'amo"
9. Borodin - Prince Igor - Galitzky's aria and scene (in Italian)
10. Borodin - Prince Igor - Konchak's aria and scene (in Italian)
11. Mussorgsky - Boris Godunov - Monologue of Boris
12. Mussorgsky - Boris Godunov - Hallucinations Scene
13. Mussorgsky - Boris Godunov - Prayer of Boris [the Death Scene is omitted!]
Bour, Baden-Baden, 1951.

There is lack of data only in regard to Galitzky's aria and scene. They probably are from Baden-Baden in 1951, but please be warned – again – that the Death Scene really is omitted. It is stated on the cover, but it is not on the CD.

14-16. Wagner - Die Walküre - "Leb wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind...* Der Augen leuchtendes Paar... Loge hör" (Wotan's Farewell)
Simonetto, Torino, 1954.

*There's a very awkward pause here. If you want to here the whole scene without interruptions, see the Preisser reissue. 

Oddly enough, the Preisser edition does give the same year, location and conductor, but the only live performance of Wotan's great scene – apart from one in 1946 – is said to have been in 1963 with Mannino in Rome. However, the book of the two Italian critics does mention a concert with Magda Olivero on May 27, 1954, but neither the program nor the conductor are stated, apparently being unknown. It is possible, if not terribly likely, that this recital did include the rendition of "Wotan's Farewell" released by both Preisser and Melodram. The same may conceivably be true of Fiesco's monologue mentioned above. To make the story even more interesting, Curami and Modugno discuss this recording recording in some detail and flatly say that the year and the conductor on the Melodram release are wrong. They insist on 1963 and Mannino. If so, I must say that the sound is definitely subpar for 1963.

(By the way, the Baden-Baden recital also included a stunning rendition of the famous "Song of the Viking Guest" from Rimsky-Korsakov's Sadko, quite equal to the amazing 1950 studio recording which for sheer grandeur has never been surpassed. Sadly, this is not among the tracks on this CD, but you can find it on Boris Christoff: Recordings 1949-1953, MDV 012, 2004.)

So much for the relatively (un)important matter of documentation. Now let's listen to the music. There are several items that stand out because Boris never recorded them in studio.

Don Basilio's deliciously wicked "La calunnia" Boris sang often, mostly at concerts but sometimes as part from the complete opera, and there are – as already mentioned – at least three other live recordings available (1958, 1961, 1976, the last one also on DVD). All of them offer similar interpretation. Much like Leporello's "Madamina...", another great concert favourite of Boris (he prepared the whole part but never had an opportunity to sing on the stage, alas), Boris avoids the histrionics that sometime pass for "vocal acting" and presents an uproariously funny yet very musical characterisation.

Colline was not a character Boris was particularly famous for, but he did sing him several times (including his stage debut in 1946 in Reggio Calabria) and his "Coat Aria" was occasionally on his concert programs. It's a poignant piece, performed here with all of Boris' consummate skill for producing unearthly mezza voce.

"Wotan's Farewell", the magisterial finale of the second part of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, concludes the group of the never-recorded-in-studio arias. The whole scene is given here, together with the summoning of Loge, the unforgettable "Magic Fire Music", and Wotan's final spell "Wer meines Speeres...". The piece must have been of considerable sentimental value for Boris, as it was included in the program of his post-war concert debut (Santa Cecilia, Rome, 1946), but he sang it seldom at concert; he never did the whole part, either on the stage or in the radio studio. This recording is, apparently, the only one in existence. The one from 1963 may just turn up in the radio archives one day – or it might be this one with a "melodramatic" mistake!

It's a stunning performance. Some people, completely missing the point, describe it as Boris Godunov bidding farewell to his daughter from Kremlin. To be sure, there may be more lyrical interpretations, but certainly none is more magisterial than this one. Boris is in splendid voice, sings in the original German, and delivers interpretation which by no means lacks variety or subtlety. My only qualm is his weird pronunciation of some words, a defect that also mars some of his rare live-only recordings of Schubert's songs. But that's a small price to pay.

"Come dal ciel precipita", Banco's premonition of death together with his murder, Boris did record in studio but once, quite late in his career (1979, Balkanton). Even at 65, though of course past his prime, much of his voice was still intact and the studio recording turned out quite fine. But the performance on this disc was taped when he was only 37 years old. The voice is much fresher, the singing much more impassioned. Even the histrionic death cry fits perfectly.

The rest consists of pieces which Christoff fanatics will know from studio recordings made in his prime. They make for many interesting comparisons. If nothing else, these recordings show that Boris was at least as stupendous live as he was in the recording studio. Many of his hallmarks – such as the great pianissimi in the end of Boris' prayer – can be heard here as well. Sometimes, as in Philip's or Boris' great soliloquies, the live performances may substitute subtlety for raw passion, but, all the same, you can never mistake Boris for somebody else. And I don't mean just the very specific timbre of his voice. The interpretation of each piece, a shattering psychological drama in itself, is unique and unmistakeable.

The two excerpts from Prince Igor deserve a few words on their own. Fascinating curiosities these are. Not only are they sung in Italian, a practice mercifully extinct today but common in the 1950s, but they include, not just the famous arias of Galitzky and Konchak, but almost the complete scenes. Prince Igor was the last recording of complete opera Boris made, in 1966 for EMI, and this is definitely the right place to experience both scenes. But those two live recordings do have a quaint historical charm.

All in all, sloppy documentation notwithstanding, this CD is a must for all great fans of Boris Christoff. It contains lots of rare, hard-to-find live recordings of vast repertoire sung in three languages, all in pretty good for its time sound and all with Boris in top form. It seems that this "new" edition, Golden Melodram 7.0005, is identical to the old Melodram MEL 456. Without ever seeing the latter, I venture to suggest that no new remastering was made for the former. Either CD is difficult to find, but it is worth the trouble.

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