MUSIC / New life for the Tsar as Boris wins the day: Claudio Abbado has held his Berlin critics at bay, with a little help from Mussorgsky. Stephen Johnson reports

It was almost like one of those old 'Before' and 'After' advertisements. Before Claudio Abbado conducted a concert performance of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov at the Berlin Philharmonie last November there were ominous mutterings in the German press - and not just the Berlin press. Abbado had succeeded to Herbert von Karajan's old throne at the Berlin Philharmonic in 1989. Was he proving fit to occupy it?

In an article in Der Spiegel, entitled 'Der Spumante verfliegt' ('The Spumante Evaporates'), Klaus Umbach painted a devastating portrait of a conductor musically lightweight and hopelessly unassertive. The Berlin Philharmonic called a press conference in a demonstration of high-profile solidarity with its music director. And then came Abbado's Boris - beautiful timing. The vision demonstrated in his Covent Garden performances last decade had ripened magnificently. After this came standing ovations and, in the press, paeans of praise. Prompt evaporation of public froth, for the time being at least.

Did the episode disturb Abbado? If it did, he doesn't show it. The manner of speaking is characteristically hesitant, soft-toned - sometimes to the point of near-inaudibility. But the substance doesn't suggest lack of assurance in the things that really concern him. 'No, no, I . . . am not worried. I don't recognise myself in this. If I did, I might learn from it, but . . .' And that is that. What Abbado really wants to talk about is Boris. With Rimsky-Korsakov's familiar 'improvements' removed and the original harmonies and scoring restored, it stands revealed, he says, as one of the best original musical achievements of the 19th century. 'Rimsky westernised Mussorgsky's harmonies, he made them behave more like good textbook harmonies should. But Mussorgsky's ideas are very bold. Sometimes he just likes a chord for itself, as a sound - like the stroke of a bell. That is very Russian.'

Those who saw the Covent Garden Boris, directed by the late Andrei Tarkovsky, will remember the central image: the giant swinging bell-clapper at the back of the stage - or was it a pendulum? 'I love that image - beating time and yet timeless. The whole business of time, of progress, is very strange in this opera. The characters don't develop as they do in most operas - you don't see them for long enough. Even Boris himself is more often off the stage than on it. The action is more like a series of tableaux than a continuously unfolding story.'

And yet it is so alive, and on so many levels. 'Yes - even more so, I think, in Mussorgsky's original. All the characters are so beautifully drawn, and they all have very characteristic music - music that comes straight out of the fields, or the streets, or the inns. The scene in the tavern, with the landlady and the two drunken monks, Varlaam and Missail - you do not see them again, but they stay with you.'

Most of this, Abbado maintains, is tamed in the Rimsky revision. But the most devastating consequence of Rimsky's version was that the operatic world became accustomed to Mussorgsky's first conclusion, which ends, in true grand opera style, with the death of the central character, Tsar Boris. In the later version this is followed by another scene in which the vengeance-crazed Russian people, egged on by self-interested foreigners, and unaware of Boris's death, set off on a trail of destruction, leaving the figure of the Idiot alone amid the wreckage, weeping for Russia.

'This is so important. This is Mussorgsky's vision of Russia's fate. The people - the chorus - are really the central character, the hero if you like. The choral writing is always so inventive, and the orchestral writing mirrors it, and the sounds of popular song, even when the people are not on the stage. It is their tragedy, not that of one man - Tsar Boris - which is the theme.'

For many Russian writers, Mussorgsky was not merely portraying his own times; he was dealing in eternals. 'The past is the present,' he wrote to his friend Stassov in 1872, two years before completing his final revision of Boris. This theme became the basis, 15 years ago, of a memorable passage in Testimony, the controversial book claiming to be the memoirs of the composer, and passionate Mussorgsky fan, Shostakovich. The author calls it 'the eternal Russian problem'.

'I'm sure this is connected with that strange timeless quality in the opera,' says Abbado, 'the absence of normal development. Mussorgsky wanted to emphasise the cyclical element - the fact that these things will recur, again and again. And look at Russia now] Again we have a Tsar Boris, an unpopular ruler, whose very legitimacy as a ruler is question. Again we have a pretender - a dangerous upstart, who is drawing intense popular support. The people want a leader. Will they go for the wrong one? And there are the Idiot's words at the end - 'Weep, weep Russian people, starving people.' It is all very uncomfortable.'

At the same time, Boris is a celebration of Russia, the sorrows, the grandeur and the homely, earthy details. Even the Tsar's daughter is first heard singing a folk-song - or something like one. As Abbado says, all this is more pronounced when Rimsky's refinements are removed.

But is de-Rimskying Boris all gain? What about the old charge that Mussorgsky was technically clumsy? 'Most of it was based on misunderstanding, I think, particularly when it comes to harmony or rhythm, or the character of the vocal line. But I would agree that sometimes Mussorgsky's orchestration needs a little . . . help. There are wonderful effects, like the bells, or the sound of the clock. I have tried to make my alterations very discreet. I have not made big colour changes like Rimsky or Shostakovich in his version. Perhaps you will not notice?'

Those who feel like responding to Abbado's challenge have an excellent opportunity to do so in the new recording made in the Philharmonie around the November concert performances. Having heard the first of those very 'live' versions, I felt initially that it was a shame Sony hadn't taped the concerts themselves. But the recording has a similar urgency and attention to detail. And there's more music, as Abbado has included both the 1869 and 1874 versions of Act 4 scene 1. The cast is nearly the same as in the concert performances. Sergei Larin's ardent Grigory is there, as is Philip Langridge's insinuating Shuisky, the robustly comic double-act of Gleb Nikolsky and Helmut Wildhaber as the two monks, and Anatoly Kotcherga's Boris.

At the mention of Kotcherga, Abbado smiles broadly. 'There is a Boris . . . But don't forget the chorus, and the orchestra. The Berlin Philharmonic and I talked very hard about Russian sound - the dark strings, like a choir themselves. And the results . . . well, you have heard. Superb. But the choral singing, which is as important as any solo role . . . The Tolz Boys' Choir worked so hard at the Russian, and there is such an edge to the sound - excellent] But the Slovak Philharmonic Chorus were perfect - just the right Slavonic richness and intensity. The mezzos and the basses . . . beautiful] To get that right is . . . essential.'

Abbado's new recording of 'Boris Godunov' is out now on Sony S3K 58977

(Photograph omitted)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
    France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

    Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

    Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser