As collectors know, exploring outside the basic repertory is often both frustrating and rewarding. The search for significant neglected music, one learns early, is not so easy as it appears. Many worthy pieces one falls in love with turn out to be partial works of genius, with uninspired moments we choose to forgive, defects of length and proportion, or performing requirements condemning them to obscurity.
Even if the performance had not been as great as it was, we both, as newcomers to Khovanshchina, would have left the Met in a state of uncritical awe. Mussorgsky's historical tragedy, although the composer left it unorchestrated and unfinished at his early death, leaving a great deal of work for others, including Rimsky-Korsakov, Ravel, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich in their separate efforts, has all the potency the greatest music and the most powerful human drama can lend it—all within a setting of the grandest spectacle. As the Met presented it earlier this month, its four and a half hours sped by, as we followed the hopeless and ultimately disastrous adventures of key players of various factions in the unstable years of Peter the Great’s minority. Even Mussorgsky's finished opera, his acknowledged masterpiece, Boris Godunov, does not leave us with such an overwhelmingly cathartic effect as the inexorable succession of assassinations, executions, and suicides with which Khovanshchina concludes. Mussorgsky, who wrote the libretto as well as the music, seems to have captured the tragic essence of history in it. There was a specific reason why the final effect of the Met performance was so moving, but to explain it, a little background is in order.