- Modest Mussorgsky - Voicing the Spirit of Russia [Recommended Recordings]
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Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky
Recommended Recordings

Boris Godounov
(Evgeny Akimov, Zlata Bylycheva, et al; Kirov Theater Chorus, Kirov Theater Orchestra; Valery Gergiev, conductor)
Besides being one of the best modern recordings of this masterpiece about a Macbeth-like czar who murders his way to the top, this five-disc set (sold for the cost of three) presents the opera both in its original 1869 version and in its 1872 revision, side by side. The former is clearly not finished: it needs more scenes (key characters have little stage time), and the ones that do exist don't always make their full dramatic impact. However, there's much brilliance even in nascent form, particularly with the composer's discreet breaks with traditional, functional harmony a full 30 years before Debussy. Even passages that sound inept do so eloquently, thanks to Valery Gergiev's seemingly telepathic rapport with Moussorgsky's psychologically penetrating dramaturgy. Key roles are often double cast, which gives vocal and interpretive variety and shows off just how rich the Kirov Opera is in bass voices. I prefer the earlier Boris (the lighter-voiced, more nuanced Nikolai Putilin) to the beefier Vladimir Vaneev in the later version. The later Grigory, Vladimir Galusin, shouts a bit but in a text-attentive way; besides, his character (the pretend czar) is likely to go for bombast. Borodina's Marina is relentlessly imperious and not sufficiently seductive--the one minor problem in this fine, studio-recorded set that signals a great sonic improvement over Kirov's more fatiguing outings in the Mariinsky Theatre. (review by David Patrick Stearns)

Pictures at an Exhibition
(Toni Koves-Steiner, David Perlman, et al; Cleveland Orchestra; George Szell, conductor)
How do you describe perfection? George Szell's legacy in Cleveland emphasized the great classical and Romantic symphonic repertoire, with relatively few forays into more modern music. But no orchestra ever played these 20th-century masterpieces with more glitter and precision, and the Prokofiev/Kodaly works, when first issued together on LP, immediately became the standard by which all other performances are measured. In fact they still are, and at budget price, not only do they cost less than they did when they were first recorded, you get a spectacular Pictures thrown in as a bonus. It may not be rational from a marketing point of view to sell your best records at ever-lower prices, but consumers can only rejoice. (review by David Hurwitz)

Songs and Dances of Death
(Dmitri Hvorostovsky; Kirov Theater Orchestra; Valery Gergiev, conductor)
Mussorgsky's four songs known collectively as Songs and Dances of Death make up 20 minutes of the most intense storytelling in 19th-century song. At first, Hvorostovsky's voice seems almost too beautiful, his sound almost too youthful to fill out these narratives, but his concentration and breath control are so sensational that we realize what he's up to. He's spinning us seductively into the spooky world of these songs, where Death converses in turn with the mother of a dying child, a young girl, an old peasant, and dying soldiers; Hvorostovsky nicely changes his tone for each song. The rest of the CD is equally fine, with two arias from Anton Rubinstein's The Demon particularly compelling. Quite an adventure! (review by Robert Levine)


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