Tuesday, December 4, 2007

First Review--Boris Christoff sings Russian Opera Arias and Songs

The following was written in a wee bit of a hurry, since I had a deadline to meet. I do feel the need to deride it shortcomings, but I will resist the temptation of a diatribe...

Understand that the intended audience was apathetic college students. The two greatest difficulties were A) abstaining from 'technical' language, and B) deciding how much space to give to each track (and whether to leave any out). I eventually opted for a great deal of subjective language and addressed each track individually, though often briefly. Since it is my first review, I do not feel terribly ashamed. And David Hurwitz has offered to "rip [my reviews] to shreds," so I hope that I shall improve.

Published 12/04/07 in the Elmhurst College Leader.


Album: Russian Opera Arias & Songs

Artist(s): Boris Christoff, et al.

Boris Christoff occupies a unique place among the last century’s great bass voices. His voice, while not as large as the true “monster bassos” like Ghiaurov or Hines, seemed perfectly produced—deep, dark, round, flexible, and capable of a variety of colors and tones. His gifts for the dramatic are well known, and as an exponent of the great Russian bass roles, he was second to none in the postwar period. This newly remastered disc from EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century series presents Christoff in all his glory, singing various selections of the Russian repertoire that made him famous.

As with his complete recordings of the opera, Christoff sings all three bass roles from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. While the intimidating authority of his voice is perhaps better suited to the character of the Tsar, the other roles are admirably done. Pimen’s act I monologue, though lacking humility, is imbued with sufficient reverence to portray the priest. In contrast, the dark gusto put into “Varlaam’s Drinking Song” about the slaughter at Kazan is wonderful fun, and Christoff’s final, gleeful shouts cap off the aria perfectly. His scenes as Tsar Boris—the child murderer and tyrant—are simply marvelous, vested with the range of emotions and vocal effects necessary to his conflicted character. Boris’ act 2 monologue is masterfully thought out, with Christoff subtly coloring his voice to convey the Tsar’s growing depression and guilt. The “Farewell and Prayer” and “Death Scene” alone are worth the price of admission—Christoff’s dramatic portrayal of the terrified, dying Tsar is utterly convincing. He yells, rages, gasps, pleads, and sobs, yet is at once both tender and noble. In addressing his son, Christoff’s Tsar sings with sincere warmth and lyricism, and one is almost convinced that the Tsar is a genuinely loving father. His death is gripping and realistic (you can almost see his death-throes), and his final surge of pride (“I am still Tsar!”) is a spectacular bit of singing. It is all even more remarkable in light of the fact that Christoff was a relative newcomer when he had recorded some of these excerpts, and had not yet sung the role of the Tsar on stage.

The other Mussorgsky cuts are fine as well. “Dositheus’s Aria” from Khovaschina has the religiosity which was lacking in the Pimen monologue; “The Flea” has just the right balance between humor and the diabolical (one must remember that the singer takes on the role of Mephistopheles). The two songs accompanied by Gerald Moore (“The Field Marshall” and “The Spirit of Heaven”) aptly demonstrate his comfort in the genre of art song.

The various arias of other composers show off Christoff’s ability to effortlessly change character. “Prince Galitsky’s aria” from Borodin’s Prince Igor sounds genuinely carefree. “The Song of the Viking Guest” from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko is suitably majestic (though I might prefer an even larger voice singing it), with the orchestra’s dark, weighty sound vividly painting a backdrop of the high seas. Christoff’s performance of “Prince Gremin’s Aria” from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is very tender and is easily the loveliest version I have heard of it—the sense of a mature man of the world rediscovering youthful love is touchingly evident.

It’s worth noting that many of the arias and songs on this disc are in direct competition with recordings by Chaliapin (the Mussorgsky in particular), and, while Christoff has the advantage of later, better sound, aficionados might still prefer Chaliapin’s versions. However, in many cases, Christoff’s renditions surpass those by the Russian master, and the “Song of the Volga Boatmen” is a case in point. While Chaliapin’s recordings are indispensable, I would never be without Christoff’s performance. Christoff invests the traditional Russian song with a near “operatic” sense of drama—heavy, angry, powerful, full of dynamic contrast, gradually building to a furious climax which is sung in such an unapologetic and over-the-top manner that one cannot help but be swept away by his performance. “The Siberian Prisoner’s Song” is perhaps even more dramatic—after hearing it, Christoff’s artistic sensitivity may never be doubted. It is a truly beautiful interpretation, demonstrating the range of colors in Christoff’s voice (including his ravishing mezza voce), as well as his complete emotional investment into the tragic content of the text.

In all, this is a magnificent album. Entirely worthy of the Great Recordings of the Century moniker, and at this price ($8-$14 on Amazon.com), it’s a steal, too. If you have never heard Christoff in this repertoire, you need to. Get it.

Rating: A+