Page 12, 21st November 2008

21st November 2008
Page 12
Page 12, 21st November 2008 — OK, so no imperial spectacle. But Boris should still sound Russian

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Organisations: Keyboard Trust Ensemble
Locations: LONDON


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OK, so no imperial spectacle. But Boris should still sound Russian

Boris Godunov


Mozart symphonies an.. Clementi


Mussorgsky'sBoris Godunov is one a those operas that had a long and tortuous genesis and exists in several versions from which opera companies pick and mix. So you never quite know what you're going to get.

But custom dictates that you're likely to get something epic that trundles through grand scenes, imperial proces' sions, pealing bells and at the centre a powerfully dark, lugubriously curdled, preferably Russian bass as Boris. That's the expectation. And if no one Russian is available, you ring John Tomlinson: the next best thing. ENO have taken a completely different route. Their new Tim Albery staging gives you Boris Lite: a show that skimps on spectacle (these are straitened times), thins the score, and has a Boris (Peter Rose) who sings with eloquence and clarity but no real weight. Or anything about the voice that sounds remotely Russian. It might as well be Eiger or Vaughan Williams.

This is disappointing. and it won't do: even English singers should aspire to Russianness in repertoire like Boris. But that said, there's a consistency within this lightweight show that at least suggests a strategy behind it.

First of all. they're using the rarely heard original Mussorgsky version (as edited by David Lloyd-Jones for Opera North) which runs with seven scenes, far more compactly and concisely than

the standard versions. They're also using a single set (by Thomas Hoheisel) that adapts as required but basically contains the whole action within a sort of wooden barn and allows the scenes to play continuously, without interval. The show wraps up in two hours and 15 minutes: something of a record.

That unbroken flow encourages an idea of the piece taking in the sweep of Russian history which is presumably why the costumes range from 16thcentury ceremonial to 20th-century gulag. And the paring down sits comfortably with the poetically transparent, lightweight tone. For once the narrative is crystal clear. And if you want to feel the muscle in Mussorgsky, there's incisively strong chorus singing and orchestral playing under Edward Gardner. But an opera ultimately stands or falls by its solo voices, and there just isn't enough quality here to pass muster. Brindley Sherratt's Pimen and Jonathan Veira's Varlaam stand out as vivid performances, but the rest of the singing is unspecial, And though there are arguments for a softer, thoughtful Boris with a baritone] lift to the voice, the lift needs to emerge from the recesses of some deep, capacious foundation that isn't there for Peter Rose. Nor are the moments of big drama that make Boris, as opposed to the chorus, the star of the show. Here, the chorus win hands down.

Before the age of stereo and iTunes, if you wanted music in your home you had to play it yourself; you learned Mozart symphonies or Beethoven concertos in versions for four-hand keyboard, piano quartet or the like. It's what Schubert did as a child in the family parlour. And it's what a brilliantly effective chamber group called the Keyboard Trust Ensemble (KTE) did last Sunday, bringing reduced versions of Mozart's Symphonies 40 and 41 out of the parlour and into the concert hall.

In fact, these weren't any old reductions. They were version.s for piano, violin, flute and cello made by Clementi (no less) and published in 1832. At that time they were presumably popular. Since then they've languished in the British Library where the pianist of the Km, Hiroaki Takenouchi • found them, dug them out, and prepared them for what was probably their first airing in modern times. And were they worth airing? Absolutely. There were oddities about the allocation of material to instrument, the balance was a problem, and the piano part is congested: far too runny notes. as Mozart's patron Joseph 11 would have said.

But the players sorted all this out in performance and transformed two historically interesting bits of Gebrauchsmusik into music that surpassed its origins. bore scrutiny, and was delightful. Cerys Jones, Katie Bedford and Aoife Nic Athlaoich were masterly. And Takenouchi's playing was impeccable, deftly manoeuvring the piano in and out of focus: never overbearing, never under-valuing, a paradigm of good Mozartian judgment.

These are bad times for the record industry, but I suspect a CD of this repertory would sell

Michael White

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