Any listener with the simple desire to hear a recording of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov is inevitably confronted with a maze of musicological dilemmas that can be baffling to navigate. The composer himself created two versions that vary widely in both tone and musical and dramatic content. Rimsky-Korsakov undertook a complete re-orchestration of Mussorgsky's second version, freely altering both harmonic and melodic elements that were not to his liking, making cuts and additions to the score, and reversing the order of the two final scenes. His version was long considered the standard performing edition, but Shostakovich's orchestration gained some currency, particularly in Soviet theaters. There is considerable debate over the quality of the various versions that will never be resolved, but which must be acknowledged. Mussorgsky's original version offers a very different musical and dramatic experience from Rimsky-Korsakov's, and the listener who falls under Boris' spell will want to get to know Mussorgsky's two versions as well as Rimsky-Korsakov's.
The 1970 Decca reissue features a conflation of Mussorgsky's first version and the Rimsky-Korsakov version, a practice that is not uncommon. The Rimsky-Korsakov is the primary version, but with the order of the two final scenes restored to the composer's initial intent, with the inclusion of a scene from Mussorgsky's original version that he omitted from his second in an orchestration by Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov that dates from the 1920s.
The performance, led by Herbert von Karajan, has a propulsive energy that an opera like Boris, with much slow music, requires. He can be appropriately leisurely when the drama requires it, as in the Polish act and in moments of introspection, but in general, the urgency of Karajan's pacing never lets the listener forget the high political and personal stakes of the characters' situations. He draws immaculate and impassioned playing from the Vienna Philharmonic.
It is Nicolai Ghiaurov's shattering performance as Boris that makes this recording essential listening for anyone with an interest in the opera. His visceral portrayal of the guilt-ridden Tsar is wrenching in its vulnerability, and his death scene is overwhelmingly poignant. Ghiaurov's potent, mahogany-hued voice is also ideal for expressing Boris' power and nobility. Galina Vishnevskaya sounds too mature to be an entirely convincing Marina, and her voice is occasionally wobbly. Ludovic Spiess, a secure and expressive tenor, sounds too Italianate to be an ideal Dmitri, but he would be a knockout as Rodolfo. The remaining cast is consistently stellar. Standouts include Martti Talvela as Pimen, Zoltan Kéléman as Rangoni, Anton Diakov as Varlaam, and Alexei Maslennikov as both Shuisky and the Simpleton. The chorus, made up of the Wiener Sängerknaben, the Sofia Radio Chorus, and the Wiener Staatsopernchor, outdoes itself in its energetic portrayal of an oppressed people pushed to the edge of revolt.