The obvious question to ask
when presented with a release such as this is “Does the world
really need another recording of these two standards of the
repertoire by a regional France orchestra with a little-known
young Russian conductor?” The answer must be “yes” when it is
as outstanding as this one.
The Toulouse orchestra was
under the directorship of Michel Plasson for 35 years until
2003. In 2005, they took the “brave” step of appointing the
28-year old Tugan Sokhiev as their principal guest conductor
and musical adviser. Five years earlier, he won the International
Prokofiev Competition, and was appointed as Principal Conductor
of the Russian National Orchestra. His reputation grew over
the next few years with performances at the Mariinsky Theatre,
conducting Prokofiev’s Love For Three Oranges, the BBC
Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic and Royal Concertgebouw
among others. So, “little-known” is doing him a disservice.
What I really meant was that
here in Australia, his name was unknown to me, until he conducted
a performance by the Sydney Symphony in August that I was fortunate
enough to attend. The programme was a trio of Russian crowd-pleasers:
Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol, flanked by the
Romeo and Juliets of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev. Each
piece was directed with care and thought, verve and energy,
and brought the audience to its feet at the end. The orchestra
clearly enjoyed the experience as well.
Back to the recording under
consideration, being the first for the orchestra and conductor
in its new contract with Naïve. My standard recordings for both
pieces have been Karajan and the Berlin Phil, the Mussorgsky
from 1966 (currently available on a DG “The Originals” release
447426-2) and the Tchaikovsky from 1977 (on a DG Double 453088-2
with symphonies 5 & 6). Both now are under threat from this
newcomer, especially the Mussorgsky.
Let me discuss the Mussorgsky
first. The Karajan performance clocks in at over 38 minutes,
drawing out the drama and grandeur whilst the Rolls-Royce motor
of the BPO – no, better make that the Mercedes – purrs along
magnificently. At almost 5 minutes faster, does Sokhiev lose
a sense of the promenade around the exhibition? Not at all.
Without question, Sokhiev’s
is a more dynamic reading, as though the viewer of Hartmann’s
paintings is excited by the images. This is illustrated by a
comparison of the penultimate movement “The hut on fowl’s legs”
which has enormous drama and power. Sokhiev is 16 seconds faster
than Karajan, not insignificant in a 3½ minute section, but
it is more than just speed. There is a menace in his reading
befitting the bone-chomping witch Baba-Yaga whose hut this is,
and makes Karajan’s reading sound ponderous by comparison.
In “The Great Gate of Kiev”,
where it might be presumed that the slower – read “grander”
– approach of Karajan would win out. Without a doubt the percussion
sounds far more impressive from Berlin than Toulouse, but at
6:51 against Sokhiev’s 5:34, it feels that Karajan is stretching
it out just a little too much.
I sought some other performances
on Naxos Music Library, and found, among others, two by Serge
Koussevitzky on Naxos Historical, one from 1930 (8.110154, see
and the other from 1943 (8.110105, see review),
both with the Boston SO. It was Koussevitzky who commissioned
Ravel to orchestrate the work, so this is really the “horse’s
mouth”, if you’ll pardon the metaphor.
The 1930 performance – a Victor
recording – is extraordinarily quick, at less than thirty minutes,
and to me, lacks drama; for example, the “Great Gate” is 4:45
and is neither great or grand. It gives a me a sense that the
viewer at the exhibition is concerned about missing his bus,
and is doing a very quick, superficial walkthrough of the paintings.
I feel uncomfortable making such a comment about such a legend,
and puts me at odds with Tony Haywood’s review. The 1943 live
performance is incomplete but a comparison of movements puts
it almost identical time-wise with Sokhiev’s and has the grandeur
and passion missing from the earlier recording.
Moving to the Tchaikovsky,
the same qualities that so illuminated the Mussorgsky are evident
again: attention to detail, dynamism, passion and great sound.
There is a delicious pulse to the dance rhythms throughout the
first movement, and the massive climaxes are spectacular. Only
in the Andantino do I find the inspiration faltering somewhat.
The oboe solo that leads off is not as secure as I would like,
and is a little bright in timbre to truly portray the melancholia.
On the up side, I have never heard the scherzo sound so “Russian”,
especially the conversation among the woodwinds early in the
movement. While Tchaikovsky wasn’t a nationalist aligned with
Balakirev’s Mighty Handful, he was still Russian and Sokhiev
brings this out wonderfully. The finale is breathless, exploding
into action from the very start, and driven by the “engine room”
of lower strings towards an absolutely wild close: the strings
must have needed dowsing by the end. My dictionary tells me
that con fuoco means “with fire, force and speed”: Sokhiev’s
performance of the finale fits that to the letter.
For comparison, I’ve
added some further heavy hitters to the competition: Sir Thomas
Beecham with the Royal Philharmonic on EMI from 1957 (now on a
Great Recording of the Century 380016-2, see review)
and Leopold Stokowski with the American SO (a youth orchestra)
on Vanguard from 1971 (ATMCD1190-2). As you can see from the table
below, the overall timings are very similar, though there are
substantial variations in individual movements (see footnote).
I have to scratch the Beecham
straight away, because I was most disappointed by it. Beautifully
played it may be, but I find it lacking intensity, short of
the agony and ecstasy that underlies this work (by the way,
I have no such reservations about the Nutcracker suite that
accompanies it on the CD, which is quite entrancing). The playing
for Stokowski is marvellous given the nature of the orchestra,
but I’m afraid that his characteristic pulling about of the
tempo does wear on me. So it comes back the Karajan where the
playing is simply extraordinary. Karajan’s relatively quick
Andantino is breathtaking, and a clear winner over the Sokhiev.
Taken overall, I don’t believe that I can split them: each has
their own merits, and I will be happy to live with both of them.
In works where there is such
a history of great performances and audience loyalty, a new
recording faces an uphill battle, but in both cases, Sokhiev
and his Toulouse forces meet the opposition head-on and come
out unbowed. If you love these works, this recording deserves
to join your collection, no matter how many great performances
from the past you may already have.
David J Barker
Paul Shoemaker in his review
of the re-released Karajan symphonies (EMI 3817982) opines that
it “is the fastest performance I’ve ever heard”, so clearly my
selections differ widely from Paul’s. He also goes on to say that
the Karajan (and by extension, the others on my list) is “so fast
that the sense of the music is utterly lost”. I don’t have access
to the Rodzinski and Solti recordings that Paul likes, but I did
make an effort to find their timings. I was rather bemused to
find that, according to ArkivMusic, the Rodzinski takes 40:17
(I couldn’t find anything on the Solti).