The Campaign for Real Mussorgsky has been fighting the good fight for decades. Claudio Abbado was a paid-up member, recording the original version of Night on a Bare Mountain back in 1980. Valery Gergiev has performed both the 1869 and 1872 versions of Boris Godunov in the composer’s own orchestrations rather than Rimsky-Korsakov’s glossy revision. Here, Vladimir Jurowski and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment went one step further… performing original versions of these scores on period instruments. It was like stepping inside the Kremlin and – not inappropriately for Mussorgsky – downing a shot of vodka.

Sergei Leiferkus © Haydn Rawstron Ltd
Sergei Leiferkus
© Haydn Rawstron Ltd

In a remarkable ‘taking coals to Newcastle’ feat, the OAE – or at least 30 members thereof – have just performed Boris Godunov in two concert performances with the forces of the Mikhailovsky Theatre in St Petersburg. Returning to the UK, they brought back their Boris – the distinguished Russian baritone Sergei Leiferkus – to perform the title role in three celebrated scenes from the opera.

Leiferkus has usually been associated with the role of Rangoni, the slippery Jesuit priest added to the opera in its 1872 revision. The role of the Tsar himself is usually taken by a bass or bass-baritone, yet lingering doubts that Leiferkus’ baritone may be too lightweight for the role were swiftly dismissed. Although his voice betrays a few signs of wear and tear, his vocal delivery is still remarkable, with plenty of ‘bite’ making every word of the text count in a mesmeric performance. Thus we were witness to Boris’ feelings of foreboding at his coronation, his mental unravelling in the ‘Clock Scene’ as his past crimes come to haunt him, and finally, his death.

Hearing the opening to the Coronation Scene played on period instruments made one marvel at Mussorgsky’s originality. The double basses had a wonderful grainy quality and were sawed with vigour. Bells are depicted in the score through gong, plucked basses and chirruping woodwinds, long before the ‘beamed in’ cathedral bells were relayed through the speakers. This scene suffered from the lack of a chorus to sing praises to the new Tsar. Thankfully, the lamenting off-stage chorus at Boris’ death were heard, thanks to some technical wizardry which delivered the Mikhailovsky Chorus’ recorded contribution to the hall.

That Boris Godunov became known at all after Mussorgsky’s death was almost entirely due to his colleague and erstwhile roommate Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who revised the score, clothing it in his own plush orchestration. Similarly, Night on a Bare Mountain is familiar to audiences in Rimsky’s edition… or in Leopold Stokowski’s souped-up version of Rimsky in the Disney classic Fantasia. The original version of this witches’ sabbath is more rugged, peeling away the layers of Rimsky’s glossy varnish to uncover something far more earthy. For example, the smaller than usual bass drum rattled ominously in the extended solo Mussorgsky gives it after the initial whiplash opening. The OAE woodwinds brought a wonderful pungency to this score, the piccolo shrieking wildly. Spurred on by Jurowski, this was a terrific performance.

The performance of Tchaikovsky’s charming First Symphony, subtitled “Winter Daydreams”, couldn’t quite match the Mussorgsky in terms of surprise or revelatory colouring. Tchaikovsky was a smoother orchestrator and there were times where the lean string sound, with minimal vibrato, was a shade too thin; this was especially noticeable in Jurowski’s slow reading of the second movement “Land of desolation. Land of mists”, which needed more cantabile to keep the pulse beating. Jurowski’s conducting seemed more focused on shaping phrases, gently pulling and teasing them with his left hand, than in maintaining forward momentum.

However, the benefit of the smaller string section was in throwing the work of the woodwinds firmly into the spotlight. Lisa Beznosiuk’s opening flute motto was full of icy mournfulness, but it was good (for once) to be able to hear it doubled on the bassoon. Gossamer textures aided the Scherzo before the ebullient finale gave brass and timpani free rein after the lugubrious opening. In his ongoing cycle with the London Philharmonic, Jurowski has proved himself an exciting Tchaikovsky conductor. That didn’t always translate to the OAE with as much conviction... but perhaps I was still intoxicated by the Mussorgsky. Pass the Smirnoff.