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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Symphonic Transcriptions by Leopold STOKOWSKI (1882-1977)
Pictures at an Exhibition (1939)
Boris Godunov – Symphonic Synthesis (1936)
Entr’acte to Khovanshchina (Act IV) (1922?)
Night on Bare Mountain – Witches’ Sabbath (1940)
Cleveland Orchestra/Oliver Knussen
Recorded at the Severance Hall, Cleveland, Nov 1995 (Pictures) and Nov 1996. DDD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 457 646-2 [65:31]


It could be said that Stokowski’s transcription of Pictures at an Exhibition was in some ways a reaction against Ravel’s orchestration which had been completed some seventeen years earlier. Although there were a number of orchestrations in existence at the time, the former’s assertion that no one had been successful in exploiting the inherent Russian character of the music gave Stokowski the justification and motivation he needed to produce a version that is at times startlingly at odds with the more familiar Ravel. Indeed the familiarity that surrounds the Ravel is such that at first hearing the Stokowski comes as something of a shock to the system. It is an exhilarating shock to take in the sheer imaginative range of vivid, strikingly colouristic yet at times deceptively subtle use of huge orchestral forces.

Stokowski chose to leave out "Tuileries" and "The Market Place at Limoges" on the grounds that they were too French in style and creates a canvas that is altogether more bold, audacious and muscular than Ravel’s. Blocks of orchestral sound are often juxtaposed to considerable effect, as Colin Matthews puts it in his booklet note, painting with "broad brush strokes". Knussen and the Cleveland are both in their element, revelling in the kaleidoscopic opportunities Stokowski affords. Gnomus is as sinister as you will ever hear, the creature snarling its way with a sense of palpable evil. The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks is dazzling in its use of instrumental effect. In Samuel Goldberg and Schmuyle, Stokowski chooses to use the trumpet in similar fashion to Ravel but alternates the nasal tones of the brass instrument with the flute; listen to the effective use of trombone glissandi upon the return of the initial string theme. Glissandi are employed to subtle but telling effect in Catacombs where the strings slide eerily from the second to third chord whilst in Baba Yaga the scoring is wonderfully garish with effective use of flutter-tonguing in the brass. On first hearing, The Great Gate of Kiev can come across as slightly lacking the homogeneity of the Ravel but the sheer spectacle of the piece remains gloriously intact. The concluding bars are nothing short of magnificent. Indeed, my only significant qualm in the whole piece is Bydlo, where Knussen’s disconcertingly brisk tempo gives more the impression of a cart hurtling alarmingly out of control down a hillside rather than lumbering slowly into view.

I recall an interview with Oliver Knussen some years ago in which he spoke about his childhood discovery of Boris Godunov and the fascination he had felt for the opera ever since. Ultimately that fascination was to spill over into his own music when he borrowed the chords from the opening of the Coronation Scene to commence his own fantasy opera Where the Wild Things Are. There is indeed an element of the fantastic in Boris Godunov that inhabits Knussen’s own music also. To record Stokowski’s Symphonic Synthesis on themes from the opera must have been something of a labour of love for Knussen and the attention to detail he lavishes upon Stokowski’s brilliant orchestration is gripping in its effect. Night on Bare Mountain is no less absorbing, with the demonic elements of the music brought vividly and nightmarishly to life. Even more compelling however is the Entr’acte to Act IV of Khovanshchina, where Knussen’s composer’s ear for colour and texture is a fine match for Stokowski’s darkly hued slow march to execution.

As Oliver Knussen so aptly encapsulates it in the booklet notes, the synthesis of Mussorgsky and Stokowski "produces a third composer, who doesn’t actually exist, a Slavic bear of a composer born somewhere between the Black Sea and Cape Fear, whose orchestration is astonishingly original".

As riveting as Knussen and his Cleveland forces are, they face some tough competition from the BBC Philharmonic under Mathias Bamert. This Chandos disc provides an exact duplication of the music above and gives DG disc a serious run for its money. Overall Knussen and the Cleveland win by a nose but if you already have the Chandos in your collection I would think pretty seriously before splashing out on the newcomer. Otherwise don’t hesitate. This is a disc that I can heartily recommend.

Christopher Thomas


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