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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Khovanshchina: Prelude orchestrated by Nikolai Andreevich RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908) [5:25]
Songs and Dances of Death orchestrated by Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975) [23:10]
Pictures at an Exhibition orchestrated by Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937) [34:52]
Sergi Leiferkus, baritone
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Yuri Temirkanov
Recording details not disclosed DDD
BMG CLASSICS 82876 59423 2 [63:34]

Few Russian composers are better known in the western world than Modest Mussorgsky. He was the firebrand of the Mighty Five, the great Russian composers of their day. He was held as the greatest of his generation, although his disordered life and premature death resulted in a somewhat unconventional musical legacy. His greatest works were often complete only in piano reduction or incomplete, roughly-hewn parts, and it was therefore fell to others to orchestrate and complete his music, as well as to preserve his legacy. Thus it is often the case that, when selecting recordings of Mussorgsky’s work, it is important to know who orchestrated the work as each individual piece can sound quite different.

This disc contains three of the most well known of Mussorgsky’s pieces, arranged by some of the most familiar names of Romantic and early Modern music. The earliest of these orchestrations was done by Rimsky-Korsakov. While Mussorgsky actually finished Khovanshchina, this is the version which is most well known. Rimsky-Korsakov took the original work and made it both smoother and more conventional, solidifying it in places but removing some of the primitive strength in the process. This particular performance is certainly well executed, if very short. It is a prelude only, both in its original conception as a ‘foreword’ to Mussorgsky’s first opera and in its use on this compilation, and serves nicely in this capacity.

In his songs, Mussorgsky developed a rather idiosyncratic harmonic style where he would incorporate traditional sounds in many unorthodox ways. Songs and Dances of Death, completed in 1875, is certainly no exception to this. Shostakovich did much to preserve the unorthodox chord structures and eccentric harmonic syntax that result in the mysterious, obscure feel of this work. The performance itself is brooding and moody, which is in character with the texts that often employ visages of Death and the barren snowscapes. Sergei Leiferkus, the baritone employed here, has a rich, sonorous voice that suits the work very well. His instrument is neither overly bright, which would have been horribly out of character to the music, nor overly dark, which would have made the texts muddy and made it difficult to discern him from the wind instruments.

As far as the Pictures at an Exhibition presented here, this is certainly the best known of arrangements. The work was written for one of Mussorgsky’s closets friends, Victor Hartmann, an architect and painter who died suddenly at the age of 39. In 1874 an exhibition was organized to honor Hartmann, and Mussorgsky wrote the piano suite to sonically describe ten of Hartmann’s images, as well as the "Promenade" theme which takes the "viewer" from one "picture" to the next. For instance "The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks" was a costume design, "Baba Yaga’s Hut" was an illustration of a Russian folk tale with a hut on giant chicken legs, "The Gnome" was a design for a toy nutcracker, and "The Great Gate of Kiev" was a design of a gate that was never built.

Ravel’s orchestration, which achieved the frenzy, humor, and grandeur that the work seemed to imply even in its piano reduction, is deservedly the most well known. Every movement seems to ingeniously use the orchestra to duplicate and augment Mussorgsky’s original, rising from the simple trumpet solo at the beginning to the grand and glorious finale at the doorstep of the tragically non-existent gate just outside Kiev.

The realization of this work by the Royal Philharmonic, conducted by Yuri Temirkanov, is outstanding. Temirkanov has been one of the leading conductors of Russian music throughout the 20th century, appearing often with several orchestras in America, Britain, and as the conductor of the Leningrad (later St. Petersburg) Philharmonic Orchestra. His familiarity with the work shines through, with each of the movements being given a distinct metric fluidity or rigidity suitable to the dynamic of the piece. The Royal Philharmonic is, as usual, in fine form.

There is little to criticise on this disc. The only essential, non-opera work by Mussorgsky missing here is the Rimsky-Korsakov orchestration of "The Night on Bare Mountain", which many listeners would know from the movie Fantasia. As a performance, this is among the better selections one could make. The conductor is rightly renowned for his work with this specific type of music, and the symphony is recognized as being among the best in the world for good reason. Even the engineering is good, with the voice on Songs and Dances of Death coming through brilliantly, unmuddled by the wind instruments or percussion which can blur a voice when the work is done incorrectly. Should a listener be a fan of Russian music, or have need of a primer for Mussorgsky’s work, this would be a wonderful addition to their collection.

Patrick Gary


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