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)

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