Sorting out Boris Godunov

Sep 12, 2005 4:14 pm
Ever wonder why every time you here Boris Godunov it sounds different? There are so many versions of this opera that customization has become part of the tradition. Directors or conductor pick and choose their own favorite parts from the available versions to craft their own. Here is a rough outline of some of the most important variations on Mussorgsky’s opera, Boris Godunov:

1868 Mussorgsky
The first version was Mussorgsky’s attempt to combine a realistic Russian vocal style with romantic lyricism. To do this he made use of rhythms and modal harmonies that were used in folk music and Russian Orthodox Church music. In 1868 he submitted it to the Marinsky Theater. The theater rejected it primarily because it lacked a major female role.

1874 Mussorgsky
Mussorgsky revised the opera by inserting the “Polish Act” (Act III), added character of Marina, the dances, and the love duet. He also added the scene in the Kromy Forest while making major cuts that included the St. Basil scene. He drastically overhauled the rest of the opera, making additional cuts, re-ordering scenes, and inserting new music. The new version 1874 version is structurally more conservative and has more emphasis on melody and lyricism. The revised
version premiered at the Marinsky Theater in 1874. This second version was a hit with the public, but critics disliked it, particularly its weak orchestration. It was the only version of any Mussorgsky opera to be staged during his lifetime.

1896 and 1908 Rimsky-Korsakov
Boris Godunov was performed 26 times, then withdrawn from the repertoire. It was destined for oblivion, until Rimsky-Korsakov decided to “correct” its weaknesses. His primary goal was to soften the modal harmonies. He also replaced Mussorgsky’s song The Siege of Kazan in Act I with a new one and cutting the last third of the Prologue Scene 1. He ended the scene with the passage of the pilgrims, thus eliminating several minutes that are dramatically redundant and musically less inspired. By the time he completed his 1908 version he had changed an estimated 85 percent of the original music. However, Rimsky-Korsakov’s version did popularize the opera and made it more palatable for Europeans at the time.

1928 Lamm
In 1928, in an attempt to bring out the original “Russian” Mussorgsky, Soviet Musicologist Pavel Lamm combined and edited both the 1869 and 1872 versions into a single performing edition. While noted for its originality, Mussorgsky’s orchestration was again branded “inept and inefficient.”

Other Soviet Versions
During the earlier Soviet era, Ipolitov-Ivanov orchestrated the St. Basil scene along the lines of Rimsky-Korsakov. A Soviet musicologist, Meliaglis, assembled his own orchestration, inspired by Rimsky-Korsokov, but retaining Mussorgsky’s spirit.

1940 Shostakovich
Dmitri Shostakovich attempted a version in 1940 to “bring out, as far as possible, its affinity with the Soviet epoch.” The public rejected the Soviet approach, finding the orchestration vulgar, strident and more reflective of Shostakovich than of Mussorgsky.

1953 Rathaus
The Metropolitan Opera, having reservations about both the original and the Shostakovich versions commissioned composer Karol Rathaus to develop an enriched orchestration. Although performed between 1953 and 1958, it was ultimately abandoned because the “Mussorgsky sound” had been lost.

1974 Lamm/Schippers
The Metropolitan Opera scheduled the Lamm version to be conducted by Thomas Schippers. He was determined to avoid changing a single note and said in an interview: “Nothing has been touched up. There is nothing wrong with the original orchestration. A large orchestra can make it sound.” After this first rehearsal, Schippers started to make a few adjustments to the parts. He continued making changes and the staff began counting. They quit counting halfway through after 270 changes had been made.

1975 David Lloyd Jones
More recent work has focused on preparing performing editions of the original versions. The one assembled by British conductor and musicologist, David Lloyd Jones, is especially notable for analyzing the various elements that Mussorgsky left us and providing the music with which a conductor can assemble one combination or another for a given production.

1997 Buketoff

In 1997, Igor Buketoff attempted to create a version that preserved the “Mussorgsky sound” based in the unusual chord spellings and unusual voice leading of Russian folk song. Buketoff explains his approach to the orchestration: “My aim was to preserve the sound of Mussorgsky, rather than to change it… A danger lay in abandoning Rimsky, whose brilliant orchestration had been inspired by Mussorgsky’s playing on the piano. Time and again, I found Rimsky’s changes of notes, rhythms, even keys, unnecessary and unforgivable. Yet his orchestration was still superb, and I realized it could be refashioned with Mussorgsky’s notes. For example, his brief use of cellos divided into four stands, accompanying Boris’s solo in the Coronation Scene, is a sound of indescribably simplicity and beauty.” The result is the serious music to sounds more desolate, the love music more passionate, and the mob scene more out of control.

As for recordings my first choice would be Valery Gergiev’s recording. I think it is the best plus it has both the original 1869 version as well as the more often performed 1872 revision.

If you only want to buy one version I would recommend Rostropovitch’s recording with Raimondi, Wischnewskaja, Plishka, and Gedda.

If you want to read some good comments on a variety of recordings, there is a good guide to Boris on Amazon:


~ by severalfourmany on September 12, 2005.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: