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Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)
Khovanshchina (Leningrad, 1946)
The composer Modest Mussorgsky was born in Karevo,situated in the north-west of Russia, in 1839, the son ofwealthy land-owners. He entered military school in StPetersburg in 1852, and joined a regiment in 1856. Thefollowing year he met the composers Dargomizhskyand Balakirev and began to study music with the latter.
He resigned from the army in 1858, but never studiedsystematically. His family's fortune declined after 1861and the liberation of the serfs, but he was in sympathywith this movement, and was happy to subsist on asmall income from government employment. Hisinterest in the common people of Russia led him tocompose songs which followed the inflections of theirspeech, and he developed this approach in his operas.
He finished his best-known opera Boris Godunov in itsoriginal form in 1869. This was rejected by the ImperialOpera. Mussorgsky re-wrote it and it was finallyproduced in 1874. Mussorgsky gradually sank intopoverty and acute alcoholism, but nonetheless between1872 and 1880 managed to compose most of his secondopera Khovanschina. He died in a St Petersburg hospitalin 1881 as a result of a spinal disease. Of the Russiancomposers of this period known as the 'MightyHandful', Mussorgsky was the most original andimaginative.
Khovanshchina was first performed at StPetersburg in 1886. Left unfinished at Mussorgsky'sdeath, it was completed and orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov. The score included a complete scene from anearlier opera by Mussorgsky, entitled The LandlessPeasant. The libretto was written by the composer andthe highly influential critic Vladmir Stasov. Set inMoscow during the seventeenth century, it contrasts thepolitical machinations of the period with the religiousbeliefs of a sect known as the Old Believers. Insummary, the faction led by Prince Ivan Khovanskyjoins forces with the Old Believers, led by the monkDosifey, against the supporters of Peter the Great, ledby Prince Golits?â?»n. Ivan Khovansky's son, Andrey,becomes reunited with his former lover, Marfa, an OldBeliever and a prophetess. Peter the Great and hisfollowers emerge triumphant, and Ivan Khovansky ismurdered by the treacherous courtier, Shaklovity.
Rather than submit to religious reform, the OldBelievers, led by Dosifey and Marfa, immolatethemselves in their forest refuge.
This recording of Khovanshchina was made inLeningrad during 1946, and is a fine example of thestrengths of the Kirov Theatre of Opera and Ballet(formerly the Mar?â?»insky Theatre, where the opera wasfirst performed) during the post-war period, when theopera wing was led by the conductor Boris Khaikin.
Born in Minsk in 1904, Khaikin studied at the MoscowConservatory, where his teachers included NikolaiMalko and Konstantin Saradjev for conducting. Aftergraduating in 1928 he was engaged as conductor atStanislavsky's Moscow Art Theatre. DuringStanislavsky's last years (he died in 1938) one of hisprincipal interests was the perfection of his actingmethod and its use in opera, and he thus exerted a greatinfluence upon Khaikin. Khaikin took over fromSamuel Samosud as chief conductor at the MalyTheatre in Leningrad in 1936, and remained in this postuntil 1943, when he moved to the Kirov Theatre,remaining there as chief conductor until 1954. At theKirov he continued the successful artistic policy that hehad followed at the Maly, conducting a repertoire thatcontained a notable number of new works composed inthe preferred Soviet style, as well as the traditionalRussian operatic repertoire, of which he was adistinguished interpreter. His final appointment was asconductor at the Bolshoy Theatre in Moscow, which heheld from 1954 until his death in 1978. An activeteacher throughout his career, Khaikin's pupils includedMark Ermler and Kyril Kondrashin.
The cast fielded for this recording is particularlystrong. It is led by the bass Mark Reizen, singing ther?â??le of the monk Dosifey. A soldier in the First WorldWar, he made his operatic debut in 1921, before joiningthe Opera in Leningrad. He visited the West in 1930when he recorded for EMI in London. He was amember of the Bolshoy company from 1930 until hisretirement in 1955, after which he continued to appearas a guest, singing on stage there on his ninetiethbirthday, and still exhibiting his formidable stagepresence. He recorded this part for a second time in theBolshoy production of circa 1950, originally conductedby Nikolay Golovanov, but on record by his deputy,Vasily Nebolsin, and he also appeared in a powerfulSoviet film version of the opera.
As Dosifey's colleague, Marfa, the Kirov cast oneof the most outstanding Russian mezzo-sopranos of thetime, Sofia Preobrazhenskya, who was born and diedin Leningrad. Her career as an opera singer spannedover thirty years and was focused almost exclusivelyupon this city. She studied at the LeningradConservatory with the distinguished tenors Ershoff andZaitseva, and made her debut at Gatob in 1928 in therole of the Page in Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots. Sheappeared at the Salzburg Festival in the same year andlater became the first Russian to sing Octavian inRichard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier in her nativelanguage. Her repertoire included the major mezzosopranoparts, notably Joan of Arc in Tchaikovsky'sThe Maid of Orleans, Marina in Mussorgsky's BorisGodunov and Amneris in Verdi's Aida. She refused toleave her native city during the siege which it enduredin 1941 and 1942 and did much to sustain morale. Shewas named a People's Artist of the USSR in 1955, andas late as 1960 sang the part of the Countess on thesoundtrack of a film version of Tchaikovsky's TheQueen of Spades, conducted by Evgeny Svetlanov.
The r?â??le of Prince Ivan Khovansky is taken by thebass Boris Freidkov. He made his debut in 1927 at theMaly Theatre in Leningrad, having studied with Gabel,who also taught the tenor Georgi Nelepp. In addition tosinging the traditional bass repertoire, he sang in aRussian production of Ernst Krenek's Jonny spielt auf,at Gatob. Andrey Khovansky is sung by IvanNechayev, who studied at the Leningrad MusicalInstitute, and was engaged by the Maly Theatre from1929 onwards. A versatile tenor he sang r?â??les such asLensky in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin and the Dukein Verdi's Rigoletto, and in addition participated in thefirst performances of Shostakovich's The Nose. Thepart of Golits?â?»n is taken by Vladimir Ulyanov, whostudied at Sverdlovsk, where he made his debut in 1932.
He carried on studying at the Leningrad Conservatory,and during the 1930s sang as a baritone. He made hisdebut as a tenor with the r?â??le of Herman in The Queenof Spades in 1940, and continued to be active on thestage until 1960. Little is known of Ivan Shashkov,who sings the r?â??le of Shaklovity, other than that he wasa stalwart member of the Kirov company, the strengthsof which are so memorably displayed in this recording.David Patmore