Boris Godunov Orchestrations
Oct 19, 2005 8:10 pm
Shostakovich prepared his own edition in 1940 of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. There even seems to be variation among the Shostakovich orchestrations. I have seen different orchestrations for the 1869 and 1872 versions. Maybe he orchestrated everything so that conductors could put together whatever version they wanted and still use his orchestration.
Here are my reactions to the three main orchestrations of Boris. Keep in mind that I am working from recordings rather than from scores so much of this is subjective and may have a lot to do with the particular performance and conductor as much as the orchestration.
The Mussorgsky orchestration is generally heavy and muddy; the individual parts and inner voices are not very clear. In some ways the orchestra sounds like a single large instrument, rather than many. It is a really unusual sound. He tends to rely very heavily on the use of strings and there are very few coloristic effects, almost none. One can see where the criticism for clumsy orchestration come from but I must admit it does a very good job of creating an atmosphere that is suffocating, stifling, and claustrophobic—probably exactly what he wanted to convey.
The Rimsky-Korsakov orchestration is bright, clear, and scintillating. It is full of orchestral color and is very easy to hear all the inner voices (or did he recompose these sections to add these parts?). In either case it is a much fuller, richer sound and very much reminds one of the colorful and fantastic fairy tale operas that were popular at the end of the nineteenth century. This version seems to bring forward the wit, irony, sophistication and detachment of Pushkin’s original story. It is very pretty and easy to listen to and is the version that is most familiar to us as Boris Godunov.
Shostakovich maintains the clarity Rimsky-Korsakov—it sounds like an orchestra rather than the unusual “big instrument” of Mussorgsky—but at the same times keeps the heavy and claustrophobic feeling from the original orchestration. While Mussorgsky feels heavy and oppressive and Rimsky-Korsakov feels bright and optimistic, Shostakovich combines these to create a feeling of struggle against great odds that you often hear in his symphonies and oratorios.
Shostakovich uses a great deal brass and there is some percussion in the mix almost all the time. Sometimes the percussion is heavy and dominating, other times merely adding some subtle color and brightness to the sound. In the busy and chaotic sections of the opera, his use of brass and a great variety of percussion makes it seem all the more chaotic. I feel like they have almost doubled the tempos but when I check the timings they are not much different, so this must be the effect of the orchestration.
I think all three versions are valid and interesting interpretations. Rimsky-Korsakov is certainly the happiest and easiest to sit through, his optimism and detachment provides a nice counterpoint to the tragedy. Shostakovich has definitely created a version that communicates the Soviet aesthetic of communal action working to overcome oppression and adversity. I even think the original Mussorgsky orchestration does a great job of communicating the stifling atmosphere that we often associate with Dostoevsky, Chekhov or Solzhenitsyn, perhaps too well, making it a bit overwhelming for a four-hour stretch.