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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Tableaux d’une exposition (Pictures at an Exhibition) (various orchestrations) (1874) [35:59]
men of the BBC Symphony Chorus (in "Great Gate of Kiev")
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
Recorded live at Promenade Concert, Royal Albert Hall, 1 September 2004. DDD
Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)

Pines of Rome (1924) [22:30]
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Tadaaki Otaka
Recorded live at Promenade Concert, Royal Albert Hall, 6 August 2004. DDD
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 61954-2 [58:24]

 

At a Promenade Concert on Monday, August 19th 1991 we heard Leonard Slatkin's brilliant first compilation from nine different orchestrations of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, a remarkably successful initiative, reminding us, as it did, of how many arrangements there have been of this evocative score. Then he went for extracts from Lawrence Leonard’s version for piano and orchestra, from Ashkenazy, Lucien Cailliet, Sergey Gorchakov, Leonidas Leonardi, Sir Henry Wood, Mikhail Tushmalov, Stokowski and Ravel.

It was the indefatigable Edward Johnson, champion of Leopold Stokowski, we had to thank for getting Slatkin interested and finding some of the scores. Now Slatkin has done it again with a new – in many ways more way-out – compilation including versions by Ellison, Gorchakov, Walter Goehr, Naoumoff, Geert van Keulen, Ashkenazy, Simpson, Cailliet, Wood, Lawrence Leonard, Leo Funtek, Boyd, Ravel and the Australian composer/arranger Douglas Gamley.

Slatkin’s first compilation, although he played it round the world, has never been commercially released, which makes it all the more pleasing to welcome his second version on this CD from the 2004 Proms at the Royal Albert Hall.

Now there are two possible attitudes to orchestrations of Pictures. There is the po-faced "I cannot be having with anything except Ravel" view, or on the other hand, that this colourful score has endless possibilities and most orchestrations give one a new angle on it. If you incline to the first, stop reading now, but if like me you want a sonic adventure, join Leonard Slatkin in this fascinating exploration, starting and ending with absolutely way-out versions, one of which works and one of which doesn’t.

The pictures that inspired Mussorgsky were, of course, by his friend Victor Hartmann (1834-1873), architect, designer and water-colourist, one of that group of artists and musicians who looked to Russia, its folk-song, folk-tales and peasant handicraft as a source of national art in the 1860s. The critic Stassov tells how Hartmann, then in his late twenties, caused a furore when he attended a carnival ball dressed as the witch Baba Yaga. Yet Hartmann was achieving recognition, and in that same year designed the Russian Millenary Monument at Novgorod for which Balakirev's tone-poem Russia was commissioned.

Mussorgsky was stunned by the death of his fertile and brilliant friend at the age of 39, and when a memorial exhibition of Hartmann's work took place in St Petersburg, he quickly responded with four of these familiar piano pieces, soon expanded to ten and linked by interludes (the promenades in which Mussorgsky said that he, himself, could be seen) to become the piano work we know today, first published in 1886.

It was Rimsky-Korsakov who prepared the original Pictures for publication, and indeed it has been reported that the beginning of a sketch of a possible Rimsky-Korsakov orchestration survives, abandoned when his pupil Mikhail Tushmalov took it up. Rimsky certainly conducted Tushmalov's first performance in St Petersburg, on November 30th, 1891, and the only recording ascribes it to "Tushmalov-Rimsky", though on what grounds is not said. Tushmalov must have acquired the printed piano score from his teacher soon after publication and been struck by the opportunities it gave for orchestral colour, though he only chose the opening promenade and seven of the pictures, omitting "Gnomus", "Tuileries" and "Bydlo" (Stokowski, too, later omitted "Tuileries", as well as "Limoges"). Tushmalov was for a time on LP (Acanta DC22128) in a business-like Munich Philharmonic performance conducted by Marc Andreae from 1980 which I cannot trace having been transferred to CD, though Slatkin quarried "Limoges" from it in 1991.

It seems probable that the long familiar version by Ravel and that by the Finnish conductor Leo Funtek were written almost simultaneously and in ignorance of each other, during 1922. The conductor Serge Koussevitzky had introduced Ravel to Mussorgsky's piano original and he had responded by transcribing "The Great Gate of Kiev" during May 1922, finishing the complete transcription shortly before Koussevitsky gave the first performance in Paris on October 19th that year. Meantime, Funtek had been working on his far more sombre version of which he gave the first performance in Helsinki on December 14th, 1922. Interest in Pictures must have been "in the air" because that same year there was also published, in Berlin, a version for salon orchestra (including harmonium and percussion) by Giuseppe Becce. He was an Italian composer of songs, and a pioneer of film music in the silent era, and his version of Pictures, much abridged and never recorded, started with "The Old Castle" and omitted all the promenades!

Once the published score of the Ravel version had become widely disseminated (and the performing materials easily available) Pictures became really popular and the Ravel version was established as the pre-eminent one. It was recorded by Koussevitzky on October 28th, 1930 (DB 1890/3, reissued on Pearl GEMMCD 9020) and certainly in the mid-1930s Pictures was frequently given; for example, at Carnegie Hall it was conducted by Koussevitzky, Stokowski and Toscanini. Despite his "literalist" reputation, when Toscanini recorded it he could not resist making his own revisions to Ravel’s orchestration.

Perhaps the most obscure version, not so far recorded, is that by Leonidas Leonardi, a Russian-born American who studied in France (and indeed, included Ravel among his teachers) and died in 1967. In his early twenties he prepared a rival version to Ravel’s at the request of Mussorgsky’s own publishers, who were taken aback by the success of Koussevitzky’s commission. From this score, Slatkin included the "Tuileries" movement in his first compilation. He remarked at the time that the orchestration "seemed like a rushed job" and it is notable he has not returned to it.

In the 1930s there followed orchestrations by the French-born American Lucien Cailliet - for nearly 20 years the bass clarinettist in the Philadelphia Orchestra (VICI4851/4 now on Biddulph WHL 046) and by Leopold Stokowski, both really only known to record collectors. Cailliet’s version was commissioned by Eugene Ormandy to show off the Philadelphia Orchestra that he had just taken over. It also provided a rival version to the Ravel transcription being performed in Boston by Koussevitzky, then still very much his own property, but it is a rousing view, if more rough-hewn than Ravel’s.

The Stokowski orchestration is particularly arresting, the arranger making the point that he was deliberately being more Slavic than Ravel. Stokowski omitted two of the pictures – "Limoges" and "Tuileries" – which he felt not to be authentic.

Stokowski announces his intention to depart from the sophisticated world of Ravel at the outset by presenting the opening promenade on strings, phrased haltingly to depict Mussorgsky's tour of the exhibition. Nevertheless, Cailliet's opening Promenade on woodwind is perhaps the most authentic in this respect. I prefer both to the one recorded here. Stokowski’s was first recorded with the Philadelphia Orchestra on November 27th, 1939 (DB5827/30, CD reissue on Dutton CDAX 8009) thus creating on pre-war 78s a fairly sharp competition between three brilliant and strongly characterized versions. All this must have contributed significantly to the growth in public interest in Mussorgsky's music, albeit interrupted by the war. Stokowski recorded the work three times and his Decca ‘Phase 4’ version of 1966 is on London 443 898-2. Music and Arts CD-765 has Stokowski’s memorable 1963 Promenade Concert performance in stunning true stereo, once on King Records in Japan. The Stokey orchestration seems to be the one most widely taken up by other conductors, with versions by the BBC Philharmonic and Matthias Bamert on Chandos (CHAN 9445), the New Zealand Symphony and James Sedares on Koch (37344-2), a live Rozhdestvensky performance on Russian Revelation RV 10073, and most recently by Oliver Knussen with the Cleveland Orchestra on DG (457 646-2). A forthcoming version with the Bournemouth Symphony conducted by Jose Serebrier, variously reported as in great sound, is due out from Naxos in September (8.557645).

Later came other versions, several of which are on CD. Perhaps the most high profile was Vladimir Ashkenazy, the subject of a Promenade Concert in 1989 and coming after he had used the Funtek version in a celebrated TV film still available on video (Teldec 9031-70774-3). The other truly Russian version was that by Gorchakov (recorded by Kurt Masur, who first took it up with the RPO at the Royal Festival Hall in 1983 and recorded it on Teldec 4509-97440-2); Jukka-Pekka Saraste did a composite version of the Gorchakov and Funtek arrangements with the Toronto Symphony on Finlandia 0630-4911-2. Others include the Elgar Howarth brass version (on Doyen CD 011), and the piano-and-orchestra version by Lawrence Leonard, first issued in 1992 with Tamás Ungár the solo pianist and Geoffrey Simon conducting, and currently available on Cala CACD 1030. The story goes on with more familiar versions which include Tomita’s synthesiser version and Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s pop one, as well as those for organ and guitar.

I was on the arena promenade for this 2004 Prom concert and confess that I was completely thrown by the unfamiliar opening Promenade, in the orchestration by the American Byrwec Ellison. Ellison is a structural engineer and self-taught arranger who has produced a version of Pictures in which each movement is in the style of a different major composer. The opening is intended to be in the style of Britten, the model chosen being the percussion movement of Britten’s Young Person’s Guide. Having the bells give out the theme at the outset, followed by the percussion, while certainly arresting, struck me as a mistake at the beginning, though the treatment would have probably worked for one of the later promenades. It works better on CD, particularly once one knows what is coming, but it is my only reservation on a brilliant compilation.

For "Gnomus", Slatkin turns to Gorchakov for a darkly-Russian sound-world, all threatening low brass; this is a malevolent gnome, beautifully played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

It was a good idea to follow with Walter Goehr’s muted, introspective second Promenade, with its opening solo viola and delicate textures. During the war, the need for a small orchestra version must have prompted Boosey & Hawkes to commission the conductor/arranger Goehr, father of Alexander, to produce a version for a smaller orchestra than the Ravel, and it is clear from this Promenade that this was no hack arranging job – it is beautifully imagined.

Goehr’s Promenade nicely sets up the shadowed colours of Emile Naoumoff’s "Il Vecchio Castello" with its prominent solo piano part. We are so accustomed to Ravel’s alto saxophone here, yet it works (if with different effect) with a variety of solo instruments, here at first for alto flute but with the solo piano much in evidence adding a canonic imitation of the tune. David Nice, in his excellent booklet notes reminds us that Bulgarian Emile Naoumoff (b. 1962) studied composition under Nadia Boulanger and swept to fame with a virtuoso performance of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto in 1984.

The third Promenade and "Tuileries", the evocation of children and governesses in the Tuileries Gardens, is by another name unknown to most of us. Geert van Keulen (1992), contrasting a brooding Russian Promenade, all brass and winds, suddenly brought up short by the charming picture of Paris in the sun, the woodwind all Gallic elegance and delicate textures.

In "Bydlo" the portrait of a lumbering Polish ox cart, we have Ashkenazy’s in-your-face version, four horns in unison loud from the outset. Here we are used to Ravel’s vision of a distant cart getting nearer (and louder), passing and receding – possibly the model for Elgar’s "The Wagon Passes" in his Nursery Suite. Orchestrators seem to have taken this idea from an error in the first edition of the piano work, which is corrected to start fortissimo from the outset in the 1931 edition. Well, having heard it done both ways I must say I find I prefer Ravel’s portrayal of a wagon coming and receding – though Ashkenazy’s pounding setting certainly grips, and the BBC horns and brass give it their best.

For the fourth promenade Slatkin again surprises us with a recent version by a little-known arranger, this time the musicologist and composer Carl Simpson, now the strings very much in evidence. It leads to the "Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks" where Slatkin has chosen the exuberant orchestration by Lucien Cailliet, the only version from the 1991 compilation to have survived into this new one. Cailliet’s virtuosic woodwind writing crowned by rattle and trumpet flutter-tonguing is immediately arresting.

"Two Polish Jews – Goldenberg and Schmuyle" brings us to Sir Henry Wood’s version. The Tushmalov version had only recently been performed in London’s Queen’s Hall by Sir Henry Wood, when, in 1915, at Rosa Newmarch’s suggestion, Wood prepared his own orchestration, now using all the movements but like his predecessor omitting the later promenades. Wood brought his experience of the then new British orchestral music to bear on his task, using a romantic palette and taking the idiosyncratic sound of camel bells from Bantock’s Omar Khayyam to colour "Bydlo," and harps threaded with paper from Bax's Spring Fire to punctuate "Goldenberg and Schmuyle". Wood’s "Bydlo" was in Slatkin’s first compilation, now his "Two Polish Jews" is in this second version. I was interested to see how the harpists would do their paper trick, for we wrestled with it with the harpists when the complete Wood version was recorded for Lyrita at Watford in 1991, a recording in the event never issued. Here in the Albert Hall the glissandos were a stunning success and vividly caught by the recording (track 13, 1’ 42").

Pictures works remarkably well as a piano concerto. For the fifth Promenade, the only number Ravel omitted, Slatkin turns to Lawrence Leonard’s piano concerto orchestration (he used Leonard’s opening Promenade in 1991). Incidentally the booklet gives Leonard’s dates as 1926-1991 but in fact he was around long after that and died in 2001. For the noise and bustle of the market at Limoges, we have one of the more brilliant passages in the version by the Slovenian-born conductor Leo Funtek, he and the BBC Symphony Orchestra brilliantly catching the market women’s arguments in the headlong chattering wind and percussion colouration.

For the linked pictures "Catacombae" – "Cum Mortis in lingua mortua" Slatkin first looks to another little known recent version that by the American John Boyd (1986) running into Ravel’s spooky vision of Mussorgsky’s fantasy dialogue with the dead. The low winds are remarkably well-caught throughout but especially here. For perhaps in the only place was I aware of the unwanted contribution of a lone sufferer from a summer head-cold.

Slatkin has saved Stokowski’s version for the depiction of the terrifying ride of the Russian witch Baba-Yaga. Eight horns and a notable lack of orchestral padding contribute to the impact of this brilliantly imagined orchestration. Many of Stokowski’s arrangements may have had their origins in his musical apprenticeship in the organ loft, but not here – it is uniquely conceived in terms of the orchestra, and informed by the technique of the early twentieth century orchestral masterpieces of which Stokey was the pioneering champion in the concert hall. Thrilling in the hall, it is remarkably well captured on this CD.

Years ago in an LP series replete with solecisms as well as unexpected delights called "Music for You" the Reader’s Digest issued the bizarre arrangement of "The Great Gate of Kiev," with male voice chorus, by the Australian Douglas Gamley. I found this in a cut-out bin somewhere (RDS 6325) perhaps 25 years ago and have delighted in playing it to visitors to test their reaction. One such was Edward Johnson, who many years later played it to Leonard Slatkin. He was determined to put it in his new Pictures compendium, so the score and parts were tracked down in Australia, and here we are. It is only the BBC who could keep a male voice chorus (I seem to remember 42 strong) sitting on the platform the whole evening to sing less than three or four minutes. The introduction with its bells make one wonder if we have strayed into the Coronation Scene of Boris, and the Albert Hall organ makes a tremendous contribution, particularly at the end. But was it worth it: over the top? Of course, but they do it wonderfully well. So, not a version for every day, but a vivid memento of a great evening, and I predict once you have it, the space allotted to Pictures on your shelves will begin to grow.

The coupling is Respighi’s Pines of Rome, lustily played by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Tadaaki Otaka on 6 August 2004. I remember being present years ago when a former BBC Director of Music, Robert Ponsonby, was asked whether Respighi’s Feste Romane could be played at the Proms: "We don’t play that sort of thing at the Proms" he replied loftily. Well, thank goodness they do now, for this is a finely played performance with an uproarious crescendo for the final march up the Appian Way. This must have lifted the roof in the Royal Albert Hall and was received with a characteristic ovation.

This recording is notable for its presence – a real performance perfectly caught in a big space. Remembering this is a live reading before a very large crowd it is remarkable for the quietness of the audience on a very warm night, and there is some lovely playing from all departments. The perspective of the hall is realistically caught with the distant quiet wind and brass in "Pines near a Catacomb" really sounding far off, while the murmuring low strings are wonderfully atmospheric. "The Pines of the Janiculum" is beautifully caught, with a delightfully atmospheric solo clarinet. The recording of a nightingale at the end, so often awkwardly balanced, is tremendous, singing naturally in the distances of the Albert Hall.

Tadaaki Otaka builds thrilling climaxes, and he lets rip in "The Pines of the Appian Way" made all the more exciting by being underpinned by the newly refurbished Albert Hall organ. This is certainly a document of Proms performances at their best. However, there is an electronic click in Pines (track 4, 3’54") not on the original broadcast, and as there is a similar – and a much more defacing – blemish on Warner’s companion "Last Night of the Proms" set (cd 1 track 5, 00’ 10"). One wonders whether anyone actually listened to the masters before sending them to production and it seems to be on other copies as well. It probably will not bother you too much here, but in a quiet part of Vaughan Williams Five Mystical Songs on the Last Night disc it is ruinous. Otherwise this is strongly recommended.

Lewis Foreman



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