Prima Voce - Boris Christoff
CD 1 [70:19] Italian Opera
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 – 1791)
1. Madamina! Il catalogo e questo [5:35]
Antonio CALDARA (1670 – 1736)
2. Come raggio di sol [3:12]
Vincenzo BELLINI (1801 – 1835)
3. Ite sul colle [10:13]
4. Il mulino! Il fonte! … Vi ravviso [5:00]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813 – 1901)
5. Sperate, o figli! … D’Egitto la sui lidi [4:58]
6. Oh chi piange? … Del futuro nel bujo discerno [4:47]
La forza del destino
7. Il santo nome di Dio [6:54]
8. A te l’estremo addio … Il lacerate spirito [5:53]
9. Che mai veggio! … Infelice … L’offeso onor [6:50]
10. Ella giammai m’amo … Dormiro sol [9:14]
Arrigo BOITO (1847 – 1918)
11. Ave Signor! [3:55]
12. Son lo spirito che nega [3:48]
CD 2 [71:56]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839 – 1881)
1. Prologue: Coronation Scene [10:53]
2. Act 1. Pimen’s monologue [5:52]
3. Act 1. Varlaam’s song [2:33]
4. Act 2. Boris’s monologue [6:05]
5. Act 2. Clock scene [3:58]
6. Act 4. Farewell and Death of Boris [11:46]
7. Dosifey’s aria [6:22]
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844 – 1908)
8. Song of the Viking Merchant [3:46]
The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh
9. O vain illusion [4:27]
Pyotr TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 – 1893)
10. Everyone knows love on earth [4:55]
Alexander BORODIN (1833 – 1887)
11. Prince Galitsky’s aria [3:52]
12. Konchak’s aria [7:23]
CD 3 [72:25]
Russian Songs and Sacred Music
Alexander SEROV (1820 – 1871)
1. Shrove Tuesday [4:39]
2. Song of the lumberjacks [5:00]
3. The Bandore [3:29]
4. Down Peterskaya Street [2:13]
5. Going down the Volga [3:40]
6. The lonely autumn night [5:22]
7. Psalm 137. By the waters of Babylon [5:25]
Mikhail STROKINE (1832 – 1887)
8. Prayer to St. Simeon [2:36]
Pavel CHESNOKOV (1877 – 1944)
9. Lord have mercy on our people [4:00]
10. The song of the twelve robbers [5:56]
Alexander GRECHANINOV (1864 – 1956)
11. Litany [6:02]
12. Siberian prisoner’s song [4:17]
Songs and Dances of Death
13. No 4 Field-Marshal Death [4:55]
14. The Grave [3:44]
15. Softly the spirit flies up to heaven [3:15]
LISHKIN (? - ?)
16. She mocked [3:32]
17. Song of the Volga boatmen [4:20]
One of the greatest singing artists ever recorded.
Some later recordings of Boris Christoff, expressive and dramatically convincing though they invariably are, can be vocally rather gruff. On these early examples there is very little of that characteristic. The overriding impression is, on the contrary, of an uncommonly sonorous voice with brilliant top notes and a beautiful pianissimo that few other basses have ever been able to muster. Where he sometimes momentarily falters is in the lowest reaches of the voice. He has all the notes that are required but they can sometimes be weak and even slightly unsteady. What impresses most of all is his ability to go to the core of the music, whether it be an aria or a simple song. Like his contemporary baritone colleague – and brother-in-law – Tito Gobbi he was a unique singing-actor, and created a number of deeply penetrating portraits of some of the great bass roles.
The first disc in this volume is devoted to Italian opera. It gives a rare opportunity to hear him in a Mozart role. Considering his histrionic powers one would expect his Leporello to be callous and cynical. It isn’t. This is a man-servant with a heart of gold and his warm reading of the catalogue aria leads us to believe that he feels compassion for poor Elvira. Well, there is a hint of a mocking laughter near the end, but that’s all.
The Caldara aria, with Gerald Moore at the piano, is sung with restraint and honeyed tone. It is hard to believe that this finely honed reading comes from a man with such tremendous vocal resources.
The following six tracks are from a 1955 recital, recorded in Rome with the always responsive Vittorio Gui at the helm of the orchestra and chorus of the Rome Opera. The aria from Norma, preceded by almost 3½ minutes orchestral introduction, is monumental with the male chorus really on their toes. The Sonnambula aria has similarities to Chaliapin’s recording but is warmer, though maybe less elegant than Siepi’s. As Zaccaria in Nabucco he has authority and sings with unerring dramatic intensity. In Il santo nome from La forza del destino my favourite recording has always been Ezio Pinza’s from the late 1920s. Christoff’s reading may be deeper but Pinza’s noble tone still wins the day, if only by a hair’s breadth. Fiesco’s aria from Simon Boccanegra has the nobility that may be lacking in the Forza excerpt but his lowest notes are a bit sketchy.
The four remaining items on CD 1 are all from his earliest recording period, 1949 – 1951. The brilliance in the Ernani aria is truly glorious and there is ‘go’ in the cabaletta. Karajan and the Philharmonia provide ideally refined background for Filippo’s monologue from Don Carlo – a reading that few have surpassed. He recorded the opera complete twice – first in the mid-1950s in the four-act version and then in the early 1960s in the five-act version – both times with Gabriele Santini conducting. The later of them, on DG, was my introduction to this opera and Christoff’s Filippo is still the one that looms in my memory. However I have to admit nowadays that his reading then was a bit cruder than on the earlier one. Best of all, though, is the version with Karajan, on this disc – inward and deeply moving. The two arias from Mefistofele are vital and outgoing with virtuoso playing from the Philharmonia.
Filippo was one of Christoff’s signature roles, but he is even more strongly connected with the title role in Boris Godunov, which he also recorded twice. In fact he also sang both Pimen and Varlaam on both sets. On CD 2 we get some substantial excerpts from the first recording, conducted by Issay Dobrowen. It should be noted, though, that only tracks 1, 4 and 5 are from the complete set. Pimen’s and Varlaam’s solos as well as The Death of Boris were recorded separately a couple of years earlier. In each of the numbers he surpasses all the existing competition, possibly bar Chaliapin, whose Boris was of similar status. Both singers’ readings are necessary listening for anyone who wants to come to grips with this ill-fated Tsar. The depth of feeling and insight is almost unbearable. Masterly is the only word for it. He also makes the most of the other Russian arias. I learnt these – and also most of the Boris Godunov excerpts – through a DG recording with the great Finnish Bass Kim Borg in the mid-1960s, but good though he is – and I couldn’t resist a rehearing of some of them – he can’t quite challenge Christoff. The latter has more face. It should be said that a practically identical programme of Russian arias – these same recordings – was issued just about a year ago on EMI’s GROC label and readers who have already invested in that issue may hesitate about getting the present issue. The Italian programme is, to my knowledge, harder to come by separately and the Russian songs and sacred music on CD 3 is another asset. The first eleven were recorded with the admirable Feodor Potorzhinski Choir.
Many readers may have some favourite songs here and they are sensitively and beautifully sung with Christoff’s usual care for expression. Tracks 3 and 4 – The Bandore and Down Peterskaya Street are particular favourites with me, and the Song of the twelve robbers is another dear friend. Even better as an interpretation is the Siberian prisoner’s song; this is a performance with penetrating psychology, not just superb singing. This and the three Mussorgsky songs, all four recorded in 1951 with Gerald Moore at the piano, are among the greatest song interpretations ever set down. Strong words, no doubt, but I can’t really see any valid counter-arguments. Hans Hotter and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau were on the same exalted level but not necessarily better. The encore, Song of the Volga boatmen, is also masterly in the total control of dynamics.
To me Boris Christoff was unable to sing a dull tone. He is without doubt one of the greatest singing artists ever recorded. As always Nimbus also provide well researched biographical notes by Alan Bilgora. And the sound is as good as the original shellacs or early LPs allowed. Don’t miss this one!
-- Göran Forsling, MusicWeb International
BORIS CHRISTOFF • Boris Christoff (bs); various assisting artists • NIMBUS 7961/3, mono (3 CDs: 214:40)
MOZART Don Giovanni: Madamina! Il catalogo e questo. CALDARA Come raggio di sol. BELLINI Norma: Ite sul colle, o Druidi. La sonnambula: Il mulino!…Vi ravviso. VERDI Nabucco: Sperate, o figli!…d’Egitto la sui lidi; Oh chi piange? … Del futuro. La forza del destino: Il santo nome di Dio. Simon Boccanegra: Il lacerato spirito. Ernani: Che mai veggio! … Infelice. Don Carlo: Ella giammai m’amo…Dormiro sol. BOITO Mefistofele: Ave Signor; Son lo spirito che nega. RIMSKY-KORSAKOV Sadko: Song of the Viking Merchant. Invisible City of Kitezh: O Vain Illusion. MUSSORGSKY Boris Godunov: Prologue, Coronation Scene; Pimen’s Monologue; In the Town of Kazan; I Have Attained the Highest Power; Clock Scene; Farewell and Death of Boris. Songs and Dances of Death: Field Marshal Death. Khovanschina: Dosifey’s Aria. The Grave. Softly the Spirit Flies up to Heaven. BORODIN Prince Igor: Prince Galitzky’s Aria. Khan Kontchak’s Aria. SEROV Shrove Tuesday. CHESNOKOV Lord, Have Mercy on Our People. GRETCHANINOV Litany. STROKINE Prayer to St. Simeon. LISHKIN She Mocked Me. FOLK SONGS Song of the Lumberjacks. The Bandore. Down the Petersky. Going Down the Volga. The Lonely Autumn Night. Psalm 137, “By the waters of Babylon.” Song of the 12 Robbers. Siberian Prisoner’s Song. Song of the Volga Boatmen
This stupendous collection of really top-drawer recordings, all made between 1949 and 1955, catches Boris Christoff in his magnificent early prime. This was the era in which he was first, and most often, compared to Feodor Chaliapin, and with good reason: In many of these scenes and arias, he lifted Chaliapin’s interpretations wholesale from the old records. Of course, if he hadn’t had a great dramatic instinct and hadn’t been such a riveting stage actor, the comparison might have faded away, and imitation certainly is the sincerest form of flattery.
Without going into each CD in too much detail, what I found interesting was that some of the little mannerisms that became his trademarks—particularly that little downward portamento on low notes at the ends of phrases—were far less noticeable in the 1949–50 recordings than later on. He was also less “snarly” during this period. By the time 1955 rolled around, it seemed as if everything he sang had an undercurrent of menace or a snarl in the voice, however magnificent the sound of his instrument, but the early recordings of Varlaam’s song from Boris Godunov and Leporello’s catalog aria from Don Giovanni have more lightness and humor about them. The 1950 version of King Philip’s “Dormiro sol” from Don Carlo is very slowly conducted by Herbert von Karajan, but Christoff, again, responds with a much subtler and less overbearing interpretation than he did on his 1952 recording of the complete opera with Stella, Filippeschi, and Gobbi (who was his brother-in-law, something I didn’t know).
Throughout his career, Christoff was as legendary for his arrogant and aloof treatment of colleagues as for his brilliant stage characterizations, but in the biographical notes it is mentioned that he was, even in his late 20s, a shy and often reluctant solo singer. It’s quite possible that in addition to the vocal training he received, his teacher Riccardo Stracciari also influenced his high-handedness by feeding his ego. There never seemed to be any real reason for his acting this way—every single one of his colleagues admired his talent and considered him one of the finest singing-actors of his time—but Christoff persisted in treating each and every one of them like crap. One might have thought that his developing a brain tumor in the late 1960s and having to fight his way back to sing again, which he did and gloriously so with no loss of tone or power, might have humbled him a little, but by all reports this was not so.
CD 3 contained the greatest surprise for me, an entire album with Russian choir and (on some numbers) a balalaika orchestra, similar in concept and layout (though with completely different songs) to Nicolai Gedda’s best-selling album of the early 1960s, Evening Bells. Again, Christoff is at his best here, including two more Chaliapin specialties, Down the Petersky and the Gretchaninov Litany. Perhaps the most surprising track of all, to me, is the arie antiche of Caldara, Come raggio di sol, sung with wonderful lightness to Gerald Moore’s typically splendid accompaniment. Since the death of Nimbus’s founder, Shura Gehrman, the label seems to be laying off a little on the swamp of echo-reverb it adds to older recordings. These tracks all have just enough reverb to make the performances sound lifelike and less two-dimensional than they did in their original release (on EMI). Despite the fact that the booklet fails to give the first names of any of the conductors, this set is highly recommended.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Catalog Number: NI7961-3
Composer: Alexander Borodin, Alexander Grechaninov, Alexander Nikolayevich Se, Anonymous, Antonio Caldara, Arrigo Boito, Giuseppe Verdi, Lishkin, Mikhail Strokine, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Pavel Chesnokov, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Traditional, Vincenzo Bellini, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Conductor: Anatole Fistoulari, Feodor Potorzhinski, Gui, Herbert von Karajan, Issay Dobroven, Malko, Wilhelm Schüchter
Performer: Boris Christoff, Gerald Moore