Mussorgsky: Khovanshchina

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COMPOSERS: Mussorgsky
LABELS: Capriccio
WORKS: Khovanshchina
PERFORMER: Dimiter Petkov, Todor Kostov, Nicola Ghiuselev, Alexandrina Milcheva, Stoyan Popov; Svetoslav Obretenov Bulgarian National Choir, Sofia National Opera Orchestra/Atanas Margaritov
CATALOGUE NO: 10 789/91 ADD
Just as Mussorgsky’s monumental but unwieldy, unfinished Khovanshchina has been overshadowed by Boris Godunov, old recordings of it are likely to be eclipsed by two outstanding recent accounts: Abbado’s for DG in 1990 and Gergiev’s for Philips a year later. But this 1978 Bulgarian recording is useful for purposes of comparison, not least because it uses Rimsky-Korsakov’s original orchestration rather than Shostakovich’s incisive and now more usual 1958 version.

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It’s much lusher, more lyrical and less dramatically taut, but effective nonetheless. And Atanas Margaritov draws a finely detailed performance from the Sofia National Opera Orchestra. The singing is pretty good too, with three distinguished basses – Dimiter Petkov’s Khovansky (even if his spoken asides jar), Nicola Ghiuselev’s Dosifey and Stoyan Popov’s Shaklovity – and an excellent Marfa in Alexandrina Milcheva.

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But the real test of a great Khovanshchina is its electrifying last act. Margaritov builds the tension effectively: you can sense the advance of the tsar’s army in the way the marching theme becomes more insistent and the trumpets louder. But the final, horrifying immolation scene fails, as it were, to catch fire. And this, combined with an uneven, occasionally crackling sound and the absence of a libretto, make this issue worthwhile rather than essential. Claire Wrathall