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Classical review: Prom 29 – Mussorgsky’s Khovanschina | Theatre | Entertainment

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Set in the turbulent 17th century during the reign of Tsar Peter the Great, it charts the eternal strife that has shaped the Russia of today. 

Mussorgsky was one of the “mighty handful” among 19th century Russian composers, whose Pictures at an Exhibition is a pianists’ showpiece. Khovanshchina, at the other end of the scale, is rarely performed because of its sheer size.

The Proms’ full four-hour Mussorgsky semi-staging requires four separate choirs, including the Slovak Philharmonic Choir. They join forces with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Singers under conductor Semyon Bychkov for a rollercoaster evening of Russian history.

Fortunately, sur-titles for the first time this season helped to follow the twists of power struggles between boyars (feudal aristocracy, allied with the fanatical sect of Old Believers) and youthful reformist Tsar Peter the Great – considered by historians as Russia’s most progressive ruler.

Chief of the boyar “Streltsy” (musketeers) is Prince Ivan Khovansky, sung here by the formidable Croatian bass Ante Jerkunica. He is well matched by the heroic tenor of Christopher Ventris as Khovansky’s hot-headed son Prince Andrey. 

The excellent cast is beautifully defined, unobtrusively directed by Paul Curran. As Marfa, an Old Believer and mistress of Prince Andrey, the glorious-toned mezzo Elena Maximova conveys a mysterious otherness that foreshadows the fate she and leader of the Sect Dosifey (the reverberant Estonian bass Ain Anger) will choose rather than give way to reform.

Other main players are clarion-toned Vsevolod Grivnov’s Prince Golitsyn, dealmaker for the Tsar, and Georgian baritone George Gagnidze as the Tsar’s hitman Shaklovity. Shaklovity’s ruthless ambush of the hubristic Khovansky in the Prince’s own house is edge of the seat stuff. 

There is sterling work from the choirs as drunken musketeers and skeptical Muscovites – Mussorgsky’s libretto reflected his notorious drinking. The Old Believers’ mass self-immolation as the Tsar’s troops close in was signalled by flashing red lights above the concert platform. This was hardly necessary, given the incendiary Whoosh! of the orchestra as Marfa lights the funeral pyre. 

Mussorgsky’s Khovanschina Prom 29 BBC Symphony Orchestra/Bychkov



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