courtesy of Naxos of America
Fate has not been particularly kind to several of the compositions of Modest Mussorgsky. His best-known work is probably his piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition, but that music did not begin to rise to popular status until after it had been orchestrated by Maurice Ravel. Even during Mussorgsky’s lifetime, his instrumental scores were subjected to tinkering by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Furthermore, “Night on Bald Mountain,” probably the best known of those scores, was not published until 1886, five years after the composer’s death, after Rimsky-Korsakov arranged the source manuscript to “repair” it. (It was the Rimsky-Korsakov version that became popular after it was included in the program for Fantasia.)
The same can be said for Mussorgsky’s only completed opera, Boris Godunov. His source was a “closet drama” (i.e. intended for reading, rather than staging) by Alexander Pushkin in 25 scenes, which Mussorgsky excerpted into seven scenes. His initial version, completed in 1869, was rejected, because it lacked any platform for a virtuoso soprano performance. (The only high voices are those of children.) A reworked version was completed in 1874; but, again, Rimsky-Korsakov had a hand in how the opera came to be performed. He reworked the orchestration in 1896 and revised the whole score in 1908.
As a result, Mussorgsky has acquired a reputation of having good ideas without the skill to follow up on them. However, when his original “Night on Bald Mountain” was recorded towards the end of the last century, serious listeners began to appreciate that this was a composer ahead of his time, whose reputation had to suffer from Rimsky-Korsakov’s efforts to pull it “back where it belongs.” Around the time of the “Night on Bald Mountain” discovery, a movement emerged to go back to the 1869 version of Boris Godunov. I remember seeing that version at the Metropolitan Opera back in the Eighties. I found the experience to be more intense than I had anticipated, as much for the reduced number of scenes as for the rawer qualities of the sonorities.
About a month ago, BIS Records released a recording of that 1869 version. The conductor is Kent Nagano (whom I associate with several innovative opera projects, all of which seem to take place in Europe), leading the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, along with the Göteborg Opera Chorus and the children of the Brunnsbo Music Classes. The title role is sung by Alexander Tsymbalyuk, complemented by Sergei Skorokhodov in the role of the monk Grigory, who fashions himself as pretender to the Russian throne.
Nagano clearly appreciated that there were no “problems” in Mussorgsky’s score that required “remedies.” The libretto, in turn, is more like a series of stained glass windows, episodes extracted from a richer narrative that assume their own logic when performed in their stated order. This “excerpted” approach to Pushkin’s source is thus as much a “closet drama” as the original. Nevertheless, the Metropolitan Opera made a convincing case that those seven episodes could be staged with an overall sense of dramatic coherence. Mussorgsky’s music does much to facilitate the listener’s grasp of that coherence.
We thus have the advantage of a conductor willing to take the composer on his own terms, and there is much to be gained from listening to the merits of that advantage.