In its original form,
Night on Bald Mountain (or Night
on Bare Mountain, Night on the
Bare Mountain, or St Johnís NightÖ)
is an extraordinarily original tone
poem, riddled as it is with bizarre
and provocative writing. Unfortunately,
it is seldom heard or recorded in this
version nowadays, probably for the same
reason that Rimsky-Korsakov took to
it. Mussorgskyís score is crudely finished
orchestrally, and includes, especially
given its early date, 1866, baffling
modernisms such as whole-tone scales,
which donít easily register with an
unsuspecting audience. You may have
noticed that Iíve listed the piece recorded
here as "arranged and orchestrated"
by Rimsky-Korsakov, whereas the CD,
indeed everyone, as a general rule,
refers to it as merely "orchestrated"
by him. But be aware that Rimskyís piece,
for it is his piece, not Mussorgskyís,
bears little resemblance to the original.
The always-progressive Mussorgskyís
discordant, rough-hewn thinking is ironed
out by the essentially conservative
Rimsky with a glossy, more gentlemanly,
orchestral and harmonic palette. To
crown it all there is a completely different
I have a minor problem
with Ravelís orchestration of Pictures
at an Exhibition too. Not that it
doesnít work. Far from it: itís about
as resourceful and as effective as orchestral
writing can be! Itís more a matter of
respecting a composerís wishes. A strong
case can be made for the original piano
version, which needs and deserves no
apologies - simply because it is uncharacteristic,
or because it unduly stretches the performer.
There really is no more logic in performing
Ravelís orchestration of Mussorgsky
as often as we do than there is in routinely
playing Schumannís filling out of unaccompanied
Bach, Mahlerís touchings-up of Beethoven,
Mozartís version of Messiah,
or Stokowskiís Bach, rather than the
well-proven originals: and yet none
of these has become Ďstandardí in the
way that Rimskyís or Ravelís arrangements
of Mussorgsky have. However, whether
you agree or donít agree with me, I
accept that itís good to have these
pieces, even in these manifestations,
on our CD shelves.
In many ways, this
kind of disc is a reviewerís greatest
challenge. Itís a good collection of
pieces, although hardly generous - especially
for a reissue - at five-eighths capacity;
itís well played; and itís well recorded.
But it doesnít particularly excite me.
Is it the mood Iím in? Is it where Iím
sitting? The time of day? Or am I allowing
myself to be irritated by the appearance
of yet another non-Mussorgsky disc?
The facts. The Atlanta
orchestra play with real distinction
throughout. They have fine wind players,
a glowing brass department, and a string
section which matches the great European
capital ensembles: Ravelís saxophone,
euphonium and muted trumpet solos are
all one could possibly want. Levi is
loyal to all of the composerís, sorry,
arrangersí, markings, and sews everything
together most persuasively. I especially
enjoyed the various linking Ďpromenadesí
in Pictures: theyíre all nicely
characterised. In terms of balance,
accuracy, pacing or the painting of
individual pictures, itís impossible
to fault. And - as we find so often
with this label - Telarcís recording
illuminates every detail as well providing
weight, depth and ambience.
There are perhaps half
a dozen rivals (say Sinopoli, Reiner,
Abbado, Karajan, Jansons and Gergiev?)
which, here and there, offer more frisson,
more glamour, more delicacy or more
virtuosity than Levi: but you may have
to buy all six to be absolutely sure.
There may be some as spectacularly recorded
(e.g. Maazel, also on Telarc); or more
generously filled and even cheaper (e.g.
Dutoit). You may even find an alternative
which includes as atmospheric a Khovanshchina
Prelude as we have here.
No more beating about
the bush: this deserves a recommendation.
I enjoyed it: and youíre unlikely to
be disappointed. But do please give
the originals the time (and financial
outlay) they deserve: try Abbado (DG
445238-2) for an incomparably
spooky St Johnís Night on the Bare
Mountain, and Pogorelich (DG 437667-2),
Bronfman (Sony SMK89615) or -
best of all? - Ogawa (BIS CD905)
for Pictures at an Exhibition.
Peter J Lawson