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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition (1874, orch. Ravel 1922) [33:32]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, op. 36 (1877) [42:40]
Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse/Tugan Sokhiev
rec. July 2006, Halle aux Grains, Toulouse. DDD
NAÏVE V5068 [76:12] 

 


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 review) 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

II

III

IV

Total

Sokhiev

18:40

10:01

5:27

8:32

42:40

Karajan

18:56

9:10

5:48

8:28

42:22

Beecham

18:22

9:39

5:26

9:11

42:38

Stokowski

17:29

9:30

5:40

9:25

42:04

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 

Footnote:

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).

 

 


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