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The MET Orchestra Plays Mussorgsky: René Pape (bass), The MET Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (conductor). Carnegie Hall, New York. 18.5.2008 (BH)


Mussorgsky: St. John's Night on Bald Mountain (1867)

Mussorgsky: Songs and Dances of Death (1875, 1977; orch. Edison Denisov, 1983)

Mussorgsky: Monologue of Boris from Act II of Boris Godunov (1872)

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (1874; orch. Maurice Ravel, 1922)

Perhaps it was sheer novelty, but I enjoyed Mussorgsky's St. John's Night on Bald Mountain even more than its better-known counterpart, orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov, especially in this heart-pounding reading by Valery Gergiev and the MET Orchestra in the first of two concerts at Carnegie Hall.  Immediately one notices the high-octane percussion in the opening, a virtual war dance with the bass drum in overdrive, and the more liberal use of pauses for dramatic effect.  Although the themes and motifs are still recognizable, Mussorgsky's original version is ultimately more terrifying, and without Rimsky-Korsakov's peaceful closing pages.  And here, Gergiev and the musicians made sure it was the kind of shattering night on a mountaintop that one would only want to experience vicariously.

I mean this in the best way, but René Pape's voice is almost too large for Carnegie Hall—at least, that was my feeling after his opening syllables in Songs and Dances of Death.  Rarely have I heard a singer project such an outsized soundstage, easily riding over the composer's orchestral torrents (here in Edison Denisov's orchestration).  His tone and accuracy were gripping, whether in the eerily tender "Lullaby" or in the storm that colors the "Trepak," and his enunciation was so clear that the Russians in the audience must have been able to follow along without referring to the printed texts.

Pape returned after intermission with a tense, forceful reading of the Act II monologue from Boris Godunov.  In the five-minute scene, Boris reflects on his rise to power, offset by feelings of guilt, fear and sadness, and here Pape's voice ripped through the house in a cry of pain.  What I mostly took away from this brief, riveting performance is that Pape should be booked to do the role at the Metropolitan Opera—immediately.

Gergiev ended the afternoon without a score for Pictures at an Exhibition, and a performance like this makes a good case for hearing this evocative parade live at least once a year.  While I wish that conductors would explore some of the other versions (as Leonard Slatkin has demonstrated, with each movement by a different orchestrator), there is no reason not to enjoy Ravel's sophisticated colors, especially when played by an ensemble that can execute them with such precision and excitement.  From the gorgeous bassoon and saxophone moments in "The Old Castle," to the bustling trumpets in "The Market at Limoges," the work sometimes seemed like a gallery of mini-concertos.  And I challenge anyone to top the swagger and sheer volume level produced for the finale, when Gergiev and the ensemble pulled out all the stops as if the Kiev gate had burst open, unable to remain closed with the onslaught of sound.

Bruce Hodges

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