THE MOST MAGNIFICENT THING IN THE WORLD
© 2006 Mark B. Anstendig
This is, of course, our opinion. While others may differ, their final opinions should be based on experiencing this passage as well reproduced as we experience it here. And we, of course, would not argue with them at this high level. But we can very strongly justify our opinion and will do just that.
Although this is a musical-operatic work of art and, as such, is subject to many interpretations and has many venerable recordings, there is only one recording of this particular passage that, to our ears, gets it just right and stands above all others. The passage has two major problems that make it extraordinarily difficult to do to perfection.
The first problem is a tempo change at the beginning of the passage and the second problem is a seamless downward and upward combination of glissando and articulated notes through a large range of the orchestra. This glissando has to be perfectly even from top to bottom and back up to the top. The usual mistake is that the top and bottom notes are louder than those in between, the speed of the notes within the glissando is not even, and the tones of the glissandos are not articulated evenly.
The recording is of Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov in the Rimsky-Korsakoff revision, with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra conducted by Andre Cluytens on EMI records in Europe and Angel records in the US.
The moment occurs during the Kromy Forest scene at the exact moment in the score when the False Dimitri’s entourage and army enter the scene making way for the entrance of Dimitri himself. In some productions Dimitri appears at this moment.
Until this passage, Mussorgsky and Rimky-Korsakoff have created an enormous feeling of anticipation and suspense among the crowd that is waiting to see the pretender, which suspense is increased by the arrival of others who turn out not to be the anticipated future Czar. Then, when one could almost think the anticipation would go on forever, the tempo becomes more animated, and almost before one has the time to listen for it, the first of the four most glorious anythings in the universe is upon us in the form of the first of four measures, each of which contains one of those seamless downward and upward glissandos. And then, by the time most listeners realize what splendor is taking place, it is over and just a memory.
The new, more animated tempo has to be rock solid. In the Cluytens performance it is just that. But his performance also has a special feeling in the manner in which it is played that gives a hushed, expectant feeling of pressing forward, reflecting the animation the arrival of Dimitri’s troops brings to the scene, while remaining absolutely steady in pulse. That alone is a wonderful feat.
But what the French accomplish in this passage is an impeccable precision of attack in the martial theme and, more importantly, an absolute precision of execution of those huge glissandos which are absolutely even throughout the whole range and repeat exactly the same way each time. That is breathtaking to anyone who knows the problem of getting those glissandos to sound absolutely impeccably evenly articulated, without vulgarity, when one also has to establish firmly the new tempo right before.
In any case, this is the most glorious musical passage we know and this recording is the most impeccably glorious performance of it. We know nothing in this world that can quite compare. Nothing.
The recording is excellent for its day. It needs some equalization to establish the timbral sonorities for the listening circumstances of the day one listens. But so does any other recording.
The rest of the opera’s performance is very high level, especially the effects of the Coronation scene, which are done marvelously. But there are other recordings, especially some from Russia, that are equally venerable for the rest of the work. But for this passage, none can compare.