Boris Christoff 1949-1955
Throughout his international career Christoff was favourably compared with the outstanding Russian artist Feodor Chaliapin. Some may feel that this was too heavy a burden for a young singer to bear however his talent and career substantiated the impact he made on the operatic scene, and he was to be come one of the most universally admired operatic artists of his generation.
This three CD set covers all major areas of his work. Disc 1 - Italian Opera Disc 2 - Russian Opera Disc 3 - Russian Songs and Sacred Music.
"Christoff has one of those voices which is instantly recognisable; indeed, a voice which, like a select few great singers, from its first notes brings more than just recognition, in that there is a palpable thrill in its inimitable tones. I heard him live only once as a student in, I think, 1974, when he had informed Oxford University that he would like to sing in Oxford and consequently gave a recital in the Sheldonian Theatre. Although only an opera tyro, I knew that this was my chance to hear one of the greats and that given the curtailment of performances at this late stage of his career, this would probably be my only opportunity, so I bought a couple of tickets and dragged along a curious, not-very-musical friend to hear him. As Christoff strode onto the proscenium, there was an audible intake of breath; the man had such a presence about him. I shall always remember the way he stood there, sombre in his tails, his massive chest filling the snowy-white shirt front, his iron-grey head bowed to acknowledge the welcoming applause. Even before he had sung a note there was such a sense of occasion about him; my friend turned to me and whispered, "Isn't he magnificent!" - and I could not but agree. And then he began to sing. I do not remember the whole programme, but I know he sang some of the items included in this 3 disc Prima Voce compilation and I especially remember his delivery of Boris's Death Scene. Even the most delicate pianissimo could be heard way up in our cheapest seats. Despite his histrionic tendencies, he was an artist who knew exactly how to exploit the emotional impact of really soft singing. His was not an exceptionally voluminous sound, but it was rich and penetrating. His magnetic stage presence was perfectly complemented by a bass of great flexibility and something of the aura which surrounded him on stage can be devined from these recorded performances, made in his absolute prime between 1949 and 1955. He was still in very good voice when I heard him twenty years later and gave his last performance as late as 1986, but he is best heard here when he had optimum flexibility and the characteristically tight vibrato had not begun to loosen. He is often compared with his great predecessor Chaliapin and also with his younger Bulgarian compatriot Nicolai Ghiaurov; great artists all three, but actually none sounds especially like the other beyond the fact that they are all celebrated Slavic basses who shared similar repertoires. At the core of this recital is his tour de force in assuming all three major bass roles in "Boris Godunov". Some found his impersonation of all three characters inexcusably self-aggrandising - he was not a modest man, but like many such artists he imposed upon himself the same high standards that he expected of his colleagues. These recordings are from the complete recording conducted by Dobrowen in 1952 and marginally preferable to the later version with Cluytens. I for one cannot but admire his ability to colour and shade his voice so expertly in accordance with the demands of each characterisation. As Boris, he is agonised and unstable, switching between the utmost tenderness as he bids farewell to his children and then uttering snarling imprecations upon the treacherous Boyars. I find his death scene electrifying, although I imagine some might find it a touch hammy. As Pimen, he exudes a saintly calm, occasionally allowing his voice to sound grey and old, then breathing a golden glow back into the tone as he contemplates his sacred duty as the chronicler of tumultuous times. For the drunken Varlaam he adopts a coarser, cruder voice, complete with yells and cackles. As a compilation, this set more than adequately reflects Christoff's range and talents. He was a supreme singer-actor and one is always conscious both of the clarity of his diction and his determination to take risks in order to ensure that drama is never sacrificed to sheer beauty of sound. He certainly could do "sheer beauty" but frequently chose not to. He brings the same fierce dedication to the near-ditties on disc 3 as he does to the great operatic set pieces on the previous two discs. Having said that, I never thought of Christoff as having a knockabout sense of fun, but his delivery of "Down Peterskaya Street" has changed my perception of him. Nor had I heard his exquisite falsetto control before listening to the haunting "Lonely Autumn Night"; this last disc springs some surprises. The Feodor Potorzhinski Russian Choir provides authentic backing, complete with cavernous basses. Some object to the intrinsically Slavic sound Christoff brings to the Italian arias. His Italian is good if not exactly idiomatic; his voice is his voice - and what a voice it is. I find it churlish to begrudge him his version of King Philip's confessional lucubrations when it is sung as it is here with such depth of expression. Disc 1 provides a survey of his most celebrated Italian assumptions, many of which are available on complete recordings which seasoned collectors might already own, although he may be found in marginally fresher voice here. He is as at home in the bel canto world of Bellini as he is in the more overt expressiveness of Verdi, bringing a noble restraint and admirable legato to the aria from "La Sonnambula" in a manner which makes him quite the equal of contemporaries such as Siepi. In the "Mefistofele" arias, he is able to cut loose and echoes of Varlaam are tempered by an appropriate diabolical elegance, and capped with a splendidly secure top F. The sound on these discs is superb; I was scarcely aware that they are mono and the transfers from LP's are impeccable. Nimbus is to be congratulated on the care and attention they have brought to realising this set. In short, this is an invaluable compilation of the finest performances of one of the greatest twentieth century singers. It has made me appreciate afresh Christoff's unique talents and artistic versatility and I heartily urge both the curious and the experienced collector to acquire it." - Ralph Moore