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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-81)
Night on Bald Mountain, arranged and orchestrated by Nicolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Pictures at an Exhibition, orchestrated by Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Introduction to Khovanshchina (ĎDawn on the Moscow Riverí)
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra/Yoel Levi
recorded in Woodruff Memorial Arts Center, Atlanta, Georgia, 11-12 January 1991
TELARC CD-80296 [49'51"]


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 ending!

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

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