In the four decades after the departure of Feodor Chaliapin in 1919, two Russian basses dominated the stage at Moscow's mighty Bolshoi. Mark Reizen, tall and elegant, whose magnificent instrument had a Slavic edge somewhat softer than most, had but one rival. Alexander Pirogov, commanding and powerful, owned a voice blacker in timbre, less smooth, but arresting in its impact and guided by theatrical instincts of overwhelming authority. Although stories abound of their dislike for each other, their presence assured the theater's primacy in having bass singers perfectly suited to the many great bass roles that give Russian opera its special tang.
Pirogov came from a family that boasted five sons. Four of them became singers, including Alexander's famous older brother, Grigori, also a bass. While the boys' father and grandfather both had fine voices, neither had pursued a professional career. At 15, Alexander's youthful voice simply disappeared one day. Although he was teased about the loss by his friends, his teacher insisted that someday Alexander would be singing at the Bolshoi. After the voice returned, Pirogov entered Moscow University and took singing classes at the Philharmonic School in Moscow. Following a period spent with a choral ensemble, he was engaged by the Zimin Free Opera in Moscow where, in two years time (1922 - 1924), he learned his craft and gained familiarity with several leading roles. In 1924, Pirogov was invited to join the Bolshoi. Soon he was heard as Gremin, Ivan Susanin, the Old Miller, Russlan, and Ivan the Terrible from the Russian repertory, in addition to such leading characters in Western opera as Don Basilio and Méphistophélès. The last named he reportedly learned in just two weeks. In 1929, Pirogov was honored by being assigned the title role in Boris Godunov; thereafter he was known as an unsurpassed interpreter of this mightiest of all Russian protagonists.
Establishing a reputation for hard work and meticulous attention to detail, Pirogov continued to sharpen and refine his interpretations. He arrived at the theater early, applying his makeup and stepping into costume long before he was summoned to the stage. Although many stories suggest an imperious presence in his personal affairs, others paint another portrait, revealing a friendly and outgoing approach toward his colleagues. Although he retired from the Bolshoi in 1954, Pirogov was the choice for Boris when the opera was filmed in 1955. He had already been awarded the Stalin Prize for his performance of the role and accompanied the film to Venice for the international film festival held there. Although the film was not a prizewinner, the Italian film academy struck a special medal to honor the singer.
After 1954, Pirogov spent most of his time in his native city, traveling to Moscow only for occasional appearances on-stage and in concert. When the Bolshoi was invited to La Scala in 1964, Pirogov was selected to sing Boris. However, after fishing in his beloved Oka River on a particularly hot day in late June, he returned home and retired for a nap. Awakening with chest pains in the middle of the night, he sent his son for a doctor, but by the time the physician arrived, the bass was already dead. Thus, Pirogov was denied the possibility of one final triumph.