The production of Boris Godunov has been one of the pinnacle events of the 2017/18 season at the Opera National de Paris. Vladimir Jurowski took charge of the musical portion choosing the first edition of Mussorgsky’s immortal masterpiece, the one that had never been staged in the French capital. The conductor speaks to Yulia Chechikova, a journalist for Musical Life magazine.
YC Vladimir, after the Boris Godunov project in 2015 in St. Petersburg, you came to the conclusion that Modest Mussorgsky’s music belongs to the 21st century. Has the new meeting with this score led you to any discoveries?
VJ The performance at the Opera National de Paris confirmed the discovery I made three years ago, and, as it seems to me, at this point, I’ve managed to make better use of something that I heard in Mussorgsky’s score three years ago.
YC In St. Petersburg, you made a historic reconstruction of Boris Godunov with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment from the UK. In Paris, you did without an orchestra with natural instruments.
VJ If you have an idea of how historical instruments sound, you can achieve the right sound from an orchestra equipped in a modern manner. Besides, I had leant the basic truth: Mussorgsky is a composer of endless versions. This is the reason why none of the composer’s versions of Boris Godunov can be deemed final. It is obvious, had Mussorgsky lived longer, he, like Mahler who continually improved and modified his works, would have made X number of Godunov versions. The first edition of this opera is the earliest sketch. In the second version, Mussorgsky unfortunately rejected many of his revolutionary discovers from the previous version. What he was motivated by is unknown. But it’s perfectly clear, as we perform this score today, we must also find ourselves in a state of permanent creative pursuit. Once I realized it, I took the liberty to make a lot more retouches in Boris Godunov, not only in terms of building the right balance between the orchestra and the stage, but also in terms of the specific sound of modern instruments. At the same time, I tried to preserve the main thing I heard three years ago – a completely different sensation of the orchestral colour.
YC The orchestra sounded as ascetic as possible at the premiere.
VJ This is how the orchestra should be when it comes to Mussorgsky. But if you take notice of the details, you might find that the changes in the heroes’ emotional state on stage always entail hidden changes in the orchestral sound. It was an awfully interesting work, and I do hope my third meeting with Godunov is around the corner. I’d love to do a concert performance of the opera in Moscow with the State Academic Symphony Orchestra «Evgeny Svetlanov». I’m sure that the involvement of a Russian orchestra is a guarantee of a direct hit on the style and emotional sphere of Mussorgsky’s music because our musicians are able to freely follow the text unlike the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Opera National de Paris orchestra.
YC Was it really missing in St. Petersburg and, perhaps, in Paris?
VJ Very much so. The Opera National de Paris orchestra has no Russian-speaking musicians at all. That’s why I had to retell in detail the content of this or that scene in order to achieve the needed sound. Although some of the members of the orchestra managed to become familiar with the text of the libretto on their own. For the others, I suggested that they use my personal slim volume with Pushkin’s drama translated into French. The orchestra perceived the general picture, but was unable to follow the text in the process of performance, just the music. There wasn’t such a problem when I worked with the choir. You could guess it by the absence of an accent – there were many Slavs in it.
YC It means that accurate conformity with the text, with all finesse of its emotional shades that so much resembles recitation at a drama theatre, is an important condition for a Godunov performance?
VJ In this regard, Mussorgsky is closest to Wagner’s musical drama. Although he was one of the confirmed anti-Wagnerians, in terms of radicalism of his approach to interaction between the word and music, his Boris Godunov ranks next to The Rhine Gold. I could also compare it with Monteverdi’s musical dramas with their characteristic endless recitative, absence of decorative ornaments and musical hedonism – everything is subordinate to the word. Boris Godunov is a Russian extremist version of the Florentine Camerata. That was the essence of the principle of musical realism professed by The Five, which started with Dargomyzhsky. But Mussorgsky took things a step further on the way of reproduction of human speech and communication of a totally unique sound to the verbal texture. Dargomyzhsky liberally applied a recitative intonation in his romances and in The Stone Guest in particular, an exceptional work in terms of radical reformative aspirations. However, he belonged to the classical tradition while Mussorgsky was a creature from the anti-academic world, and this is what makes him dear to us.
YC You are a proponent of the first edition of Boris Godunov. What is of interest to you in the second one?
VJ The first version contains surprising finds. However, their value, probably, was not fully realized by Mussorgsky himself. We know why the Polish act appeared in the second version, and we’re aware of the reasons why the St Basil’s Scene was replaced with the Kromï Scene. But what on earth made Mussorgsky cardinally rework The Tsar’s Terem? The most essential transformations concerned Boris’s monologue and his collision with Shuysky, and that is the major loss for me. Despite all the beauty of the second version, it lost the unique combination of the word and sound, text and music, Pushkin’s drama and musical drama. Although, if I ever get a chance to work on Boris Godunov with the Polish Act, with the Kromï Scene, I suppose I’ll treat myself with the Tsar’s Terem Scene in its original form in spite the existing rules. At this point in time, I don’t think that any other version is admissible.
YC The issue of different orchestrations of Mussorgsky’s pieces, not just his operas, is one of the primary ones to you, speaking about the composer’s body of work. You have performed, for example, two versions of Night on Bald Mountain within one concert, Mussorgsky’s version and Rimsky-Korsakov’s one.
VJ I’m interested in the orchestrations where a composer acts as Mussorgsky’s co-author without trying to drive his music in a frame of this or that school or aesthetic doctrine. But these works are always linked with the issues of interpretation. However, the longer I study Mussorgsky’s legacy the more I get convinced that no one else but him could properly instrument his music. Although the 20th century saw examples of some very interesting orchestrations such as the arrangements of Mussorgsky’s piano pieces made by Bernd Alois Zimmermann in the ‘50s in West Germany, or the instrumentation of the cycle Sunless created by Edison Denisov in the ‘80s in the Soviet Union. And still, I will repeat myself, the original version of the same Boris Godunov with its absolutely unpractical, idealistic orchestral approaches that were way ahead of their time, and sometimes totally timeless, surpasses all possible official interpretations. Mussorgsky forces us to continuously make changes, and this variance leaves a great margin, not excepting the conductor. It is unknown whether it was his conscientious principle or it was how he manifested his spontaneous nature, but, as a performer, you volens nolens become his co-author. It sounds paradoxical that an almost paranoid aspiration for total control was also typical of Mussorgsky. It is expressed in a thoroughly written dramatic and musical expressiveness, phrasing, articulation. And at the same time, he leaves a lot of things understated.
This ephemerality of the creative process makes Mussorgsky stand out against the background of the others – the composers who are capable of putting a period to their search and come up with a final version of their line of thought that they find completely satisfying. Unlike Mussorgsky – he’s got sheer ellipses. He’s an opponent of a final decision. Even from the perspective of the 21st century, he remains inconceivable.
YC If Mussorgsky is the 21st century, can contemporary composers become his co-authors and, for instance, make an attempt to orchestrate Khovanshchina?
VJ I would welcome the making of a new Khovanshchina without trying to adjust Mussorgsky to the standards of one classical system or another. But obviously, it should be preceded with the emergence of its critical publication. This big scientific work presumes thorough examination of the clavier of the opera, detection of the author’s authentic text and its correlation with what Rimsky-Korsakov added later.
YC And what do you think of the Khovanshchina orchestration made by Shostakovich?
VJ Shostakovich approached both Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina with immense respect, but nevertheless he worked on them on the basis of his own sufficiently classical, academic understanding of the orchestra, and de facto treated Mussorgsky’s text as his own music. In addition, Shostakovich was Glazunov’s pupil, and Mussorgsky and Glazunov are two incompatible things. By no means I’m trying to belittle what Shostakovich did. But in my opinion, his decisions in many ways simplified and “standardized” both scores, although, unlike Rimsky-Korsakov, he approached to what was concerned with the intonation and melodic content and means of harmonic language with a much higher degree of credibility. Of course, Shostakovich was a 20th century man, and Mussorgsky, as we have established, is a composer of the 21st century. It means that a Khovanshchina orchestration should certainly be done by a contemporary of ours.
YC Are you planning to stage Khovanshchina one day?
VJ Yes, I am to meet with this score in 2020 at the Staatsoper Berlin. I’ve already started to peer into it. As of today, Shostakovich’s version is the only one that reproduces Mussorgsky’s music without any melodic or harmonic changes. As you understand, it won’t be an easy for me to work on Khovanshchina relying on this version only. There comes a question – what’s the way out of the situation? My intuition suggests that most probably I won’t live to see a new version by 2020: this work is too monumental, it takes time and a titanic effort. But I don’t give up hope and I do believe that I’ll be able to conduct a new Khovanshchina one day.
YC Speaking about Alexander Titel’s production at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Music Theatre, they commissioned Vladimir Kobekin to write music for the Old Believers’ self-immolation scene. Are there any versions of the unfinished finale for you?
VJ The versions of the finale will be found together with director Claus Guth. I incline to the chorus written by Stravinsky.
YC And again Mussorgsky will be treated by a stage director from a different cultural world…
VJ But what can I do? Kirill Serebrennikov is under arrest. Dmitri Chernyakov and Alexander Titel have already presented their Godunov and Khovanshchina, and I really doubt they’ll carry out a go around. A considerable circumstance makes the search difficult – some directors are just unable to work for opera. The majority of directors, especially “aliens” from drama theatre or from cinema, perceive music as a sort of obligatory soundtrack that runs against the background of a scene. To the best of their belief, anything may happen on the foreground. Such a neglectful attitude towards a score brings its sad fruits creating a gulf between direction and the musical component. That is why, when we speak about the mastery of such a great dramatist composer as Mussorgsky, it would be totally wrong to show disrespect to him and disregard his own interpretation of Pushkin’s drama. Given this fertile ground, we can and must start an argument with him.