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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) [33.30]
Piano Version
Dénes Várjon (piano)
Orchestrated version (1922) by Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937) [32.10]
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Gilbert Levine
No recording details
CAPRICCIO SACD 71 047 [65.46]

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No disrespect to the forces involved here but this can only be a hopeful issue from Capriccio trading as it does on its incarnation as an SACD that combines the piano and orchestrated versions of Pictures. I don’t think collectors will be much impressed by the conjunction of a studio performance of the former by Dénes Várjon and a concert recording of the latter with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra under Gilbert Levine. There are no biographical notes regarding the artists (to be fair Gilbert Levine is relatively well known), which rather reinforces the thought that this is primarily a “medium” issue rather than a serious contender.

Várjon has some oddities in his arsenal when it comes to unadulterated Mussorgsky These mainly concern questions of phrasing and accenting, some of which can border on the mannered. Gnomus has more than its fair share, abetted by a recording that sounds, on my ordinary set-up, to be rather brittle and studio-cold. The Old Castle is morose to the point of taciturnity – that left hand doesn’t really work as hard as it might. And whilst the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks (here called in glorious Germanic translation Ballet of chicks Emerging from their Eggs) is daintily done Várjon’s tone can rather thin, whether as a result of the studio acoustic or other reasons. The Hut on Fowl’s Legs (here classified as Chicken’s legs) is controlled and The Great Gate at Kiev, whilst generating some bite, never really sustains full tension.

The orchestral recording pays tribute to some fine sectional and solo work from the Berlin orchestra. One can certainly hear that this is a live performance, with some audience coughing along the way unlike those sleek Brazilian-waxed discs that purport to be live but have been depilated to within an inch of their lives. The principal trumpet has quite a big, fat vibrato – more Harry James than Harry Mortimer – and that will take some getting used to, but at least it’s characterful in that old Russian brass school way. The winds make a full contribution, chording throughout is good, but the impression, as with Várjon’s own recording, remains constrained.

So, this is a disc very much for those into “hybrid multichannel” recording. Neither performance dents the market place otherwise and the coupling, whilst not uninteresting, will probably prove undesirable.

Jonathan Woolf








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