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Dvořák, Mendelssohn and Mussorgsky orchestrated by Gorchakov: So–Ock Kim (violin), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Grzegorz Nowak, Cadogan Hall, London, 25.11.2009 (BBr)

: Carnival Overture, op.92
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor, op.64
Mussorgsky orchestrated by Gorchakov
(1954): Pictures at an Exhibition


It’s a rare occurence to have an overture start a concert these days so Dvořák’s wondrously extrovert Carnival Overture was much welcomed by the audience. This was as sprightly a performance as you could have wished for, with meltingly tender woodwinds in the gentle middle section – Leila Ward’s cor anglais was especially gorgeous – and outright joyousness. I loved every second of it.

So–Ock Kim played the Mendelssohn very well indeed but half way through the slow movement I found my mind wandering. Perhaps it was because although her playing was delightful there simply wasn’t sufficient personality to it. Whatever it was I lost interest. The outer movements went well, lots of gusto and virtuosity, but the lyrical sections left one wanting a bit more from the soloist.

I forget how many orchestral versions of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition there are – I think it’s about twenty eight – but apart from the Ravel none of them, except, perhaps, Stokowski’s, have become popular with the public. In 1931, nine years after Ravel’s version, an authentic version of Mussorgsky’s score was published, and this is the one subsequent arrangers have used. Ravel’s is an amazing showcase for a virtuoso orchestra but it’s not Mussorgsky’s Suite, it’s far too Frenchified and any awkward corners have been rounded off. Other versions have sought to convey the Russian quality of the music and keep the wild abandon of the original. Sergei Gorchakov’s 1954 version is slowly gaining an audience here (Kurt Masur, who has long been a fan of this version, has recorded the piece with the London Philharmonic) and it’s easy to see why. It’s a thrilling experience, has lots of brilliant orchestration and it is faithful to the original. There’s none of the prettiness of Ravel’s orchestration and there are many rough edges, as befits the original score. It’s certainly a success, and this performance was a fine exposition of the arrangement. I don’t see it ever superceding Ravel’s version, it’s neither pretty enough, nor sufficiently overtly exciting and technicoloured, but  at its centre
it has  a real Russian soul.  Nowak brought that out and enjoyed himself in the various moods and emotions on display.

An unusual show and one is all the more grateful for that. The Royal Philharmonic played expertly and obviously appear to enjoy working with Nowak. Long may this collaboration continue!

Bob Briggs

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