Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov (excerpts, in English)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Mussorgsky
LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Boris Godunov (excerpts, in English)
PERFORMER: John Tomlinson, Stuart Kale, Clive Bayley, Joan Rodgers, Susan Parry; Choristers of Leeds Parish Church, Chorus of Opera North, English Northern Philharmonia/Paul Daniel
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 3007
How helpful is it to judge a performance of this great, sprawling, quintessentially Russian work sung in English and condensed from 200 minutes to 75, against a full version with a largely Slavic cast? This is not to disparage this excellent account; the two are simply not comparable. Abbado’s 1994 recording remains pre-eminent, but there is no better Boris on CD than John Tomlinson, even though the competition includes such legends as Ghiaurov and Christoff (whose recording suffers from the decision to cast him in three roles). Tomlinson’s towering Boris is both utterly dominating and yet so tortured by guilt that his descent into breakdown and eventual death is chilling.

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To call this disc ‘highlights’ is misleading, for there are great key scenes and whole characters missing. But it is an intelligent and coherent abridgement of the original 1869 edition, starting with Boris’s coronation and ending with his death, that makes sense dramatically even if it allows the murdering Tsar to dominate the work even more than he does in the full version. The cast is consistently good, especially Stuart Kale’s creepily scheming Shuisky, and the orchestral playing is finely judged (though the coronation bells could be more striking), if rather cerebral and controlled.

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It’s a worthwhile addition to the catalogue and an excellent introduction to probably the greatest Russian opera in the canon. But it isn’t the real thing: sung in English it loses its soul. Claire Wrathall