I really do like EMI's "The Very Best" series. Each volume concentrates on certain great singer and presents (on two very well filled CDs) the best of his/her recordings from EMI's vast vaults. So is the case with Boris Christoff who recorded almost exclusively for the company from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s. Most of the selections here are stereo, but even the mono ones use the latest remasters and sound really fine. And what a voice, what an artist shines from these recordings!
To lay my cards on the table first, I should admit that I am an incorrigible Christoff buff. This means that for me this is by far the greatest voice and operatic artist (as opposed to mere singer). There are very, very few exceptions when I prefer other renditions to those of Boris, and these are always concerned with a most unusual repertoire for him: Wotan's Farewell (Thomas Stewart) or Schubert's songs (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau), to name but two examples. But even in these isolated cases I wouldn't want to be without Boris' impressive live recordings (he never made any commercial ones) of these pieces.
Many have tried to describe in words Boris' voice. The unique, dark and menacing timbre, the baritonal agility, the ringing high notes, the perfect diction, the frightening intensity of his vocal acting: all this defies description. The beautiful thing is that you can experience it first hand through this wonderful selection.
One of the most remarkable things about Boris was his equal success on the opera stage and on the concert one as a lieder singer. This is something rare among great singers. Usually one of these two sides firmly predominates over the other, for instance few would deny that Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is far more successful in the lieder repertoire than in the operatic one. On the top of all that, Boris actually sang and recorded quite a bit of religious music, both Catholic and Orthodox, but these parts are sadly (yet expectedly) not represented here. But his operatic and lieder repertoire certainly are.
Excerpts from complete operas include Boris' stereo remakes of "Boris Godunov" (1962) and "Faust" (1958), both with the superb Andre Cluytens on the rostrum. In the former case Boris sang all three major bass parts in Mussorgsky's masterpiece (the ill-fated tsar, and the two monks, the pious Pimen and the drunkard Varlaam), a superb feat of characterization that, so far as I know, has never been repeated since. Simply compare Varlaam's boisterous drinking song (CD1/4) with Pimen's dignified monologues (CD1/2-3) and you will notice immediately that the voice is, of course, the same, yet it changes significantly with the character.
Boris Godunov himself is a completely different portrayal. The excerpts are again wonderfully chosen: the majestic Coronation Scene (CD1/1), the anguished, full of tormenting self-doubts monologue from Act 2 (CD1/5), the psychedelic Hallucination Scene (CD1/6, a dramatic recitation, virtually no singing) and of course the terrifying Death Scene (CD1/7-8) where Boris "meets" himself in the role of Pimen, an impossible feat on the stage but an easy-enough trick in the recording studio. People who still criticize Boris for the same thing Shaliapin used to be criticized, namely the naturalistic acting, should remember that Boris Godunov doesn't die of some trivial heart attack; that's common. He dies of guilty conscience, that's something exceedingly rare, and it requires extreme measures of expressions.
Boris' Mephistopheles from Gounod's (vaguely based on Goethe's) "Faust" has been harshly criticized for "snarling", "terrible French", etc. For my part, this is a towering performance, perhaps less compelling than Godunov but every bit as unique. The extracts are again very well-chosen. In addition to the vigorous Rondo "Le veau d'or" from Act I (CD2/1) and the sneering Serenade from Act IV (CD2/3), there is also the chilling Scene in the Church where Mephistopheles curses the poor Marguerite (Victoria de los Angeles in lovely voice). The recorded sound in again (as in "Godunov") excellent; the early stereo has captured the orchestra, the voices, the choir and the organ with great vividness.
The only other excerpts from a complete opera recording are the two arias from Borodin's "Prince Igor", 1966, with Jerzy Semkow on the rostrum (CD1/9-10). Here again Boris interprets with consummate mastery two extremely different characters. Galitsky is Igor's dissolute brother who uses the absence of the prince to have wild parties with lots of drinking and naughty girls. In a complete contrast, Konchak is the noble ruler who treats his POW (Igor himself) with great politeness and respect. Boris had recorded these two famous arias separately some 16 years earlier with the great Isay Dobrowen. Though the later remakes are inevitably less fresh, they do compensate with greater, more finely nuanced characterization.
Boris' discography of separate arias, both from his most famous parts and from operas he never sang on stage, is quite considerable. You get here some truly legendary examples. The 1950 recording of "The Song of the Viking Guest" from Rimsky-Korsakov's obscure opera "Sadko" must be three of the most glorious minutes every put on record, including Isay Dobrowen's powerful accompaniment with the Philharmonia. Personally, I'd include the other aria ("Ave Signor") from Boito's rarely performed "Mefistofele", but this one ("Son lo spirito che nega", CD2/7) is not to be missed either. The same goes for the elegiac aria of Gremin from Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" (CD1/15) which Boris delivers with unfailing elegance.
For collectors the most important items are the three great arias from Boris' rare and long-out-print LP "Tsars and Kings" (1962), again with the excellent Jerzy Semkow conducting Philharmonia. This originally consisted of four great bass arias: you will find three of them here (CD2/4-6). The highlight is undoubtedly "Ella giammai m'amo", Philip's poignant soliloquy from Verdi's "Don Carlo". Together with Boris Godunov, this was the other great tragic role in which Boris excelled; he recorded it complete in the studio twice (1954, 1961) and there are countless pirate live recordings available; the monologue alone he recorded twice more in studio (first in 1949 with Karajan in London) and many times live in concert. The version here was reportedly Boris' own favourite. It is rather on the slow side, but as beautifully phrased and emotionally stirring as anything. Attila's reflections on his nightmares (CD2/5), from which he has just awakened, are as scarily realistic as Agamemnon's address to his daughter is affecting. Gluck and Verdi seldom receive such penetrating psychological portraits, which is a pity because the music certainly deserves them.
Finally, the song repertoire demonstrates Boris' versatility better than anything else. The range is quite fantastic: from traditional Russian songs (CD1/16, CD2/10, the former is an outstanding recording of "The Song of the Volga Boatmen") to Tchaikovsky's tender "Lullaby" (CD2/8) to Mussorgsky's devastating cycle "Song and Dances of Death" (CD2/16-17, unfortunately the other two songs are omitted, especially regrettable in the case of "Serenade"). To have some fun - and to stress again Boris' vocal and emotional range - there are Mussorgsky's mischievous "Song of the Flea" (CD1/17, Russian translations from Goethe's "Faust", complete with uproarious laughter from Boris-Mephisto) and almost the full cycle children's songs "Nursery". The latter is surely the most unique recording in Boris' whole discography. He lightens his voice to imitate a child so well that it no longer sounds like a bass at all, let alone like the thundering one he is most famous for. The pieces are musically slight, but as a feat of characterization they are quite extraordinary.
All in all, a magnificent introduction to one of the greatest voices and most unique artistic personalities of the last centuries. Apart from minor quibbles about the selection or about the indifferent liner notes, this is as fine a portrait in such limited space as possible. Title like "The Very Best" is very much deserved.