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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881) orch. Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Pictures at an Exhibition (1874/1922) [33:34]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36 (1877-8) [42:46]
Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse/Tugan Sokhiev
rec. Halle aux Grains, Toulouse, July 2006
NA¤VE V5068 [76:20] 
Experience Classicsonline

I was all set to complain about needless reduplications of the standard repertoire that don't offer anything new. But the young Tugan Sokhiev, winner of the 2000 International Prokofiev Competition, has a distinctive take on both these scores, even if he's committed one of them to record prematurely. 

The conductor is at his best in the Mussorgsky-Ravel picture gallery, displaying a nice feel for orchestral color and texture. In the first half of the score, his relaxed tempi favor certain expressive choices. The opening Promenade, soft in attack yet clean and full, suggests an easy stroll into the gallery. Gnomus is deliberate and mysterious; The Old Castle begins plainly, gradually expanding into a sinuous nostalgia. The central section of Tuileries is delicately, tenderly phrased, and the tapered ending is a nice touch. Bydlo goes with a sense of grim purpose -- Sokhiev understands that the low, filled-in textures produce a sufficiently lumbering effect without dragging -- after which the next Promenade seems unusually thoughtful. 

After the perky Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks -- this and Limoges, the other scherzando movement, are okay, nothing special -- Sokhiev's stark, pictorial treatment of Samuel Goldberg and Schmuyle stands out. The opening string gesture, weighty and imposing, vividly evokes the overbearing businessman. The trumpet response is accented the right way, for a change -- it's astonishing how many competent players get this detail wrong; perhaps it's a bit too lithe and buoyant, but it's effective when pitted against the string theme. In the coda, Sokhiev leans on the descending, "beseeching" phrases so as to emphasize the nagging augmented second, before the uncompromising final cadence -- well done. 

In Catacombs, the conductor carefully times and weights the chords and pauses, much as a Lied singer does with words and syllables, enhancing the drama; the closing woodwind phrases of Cum mortuis in lingua mortua are clear and pliant. After all the relative deliberation, Sokhiev's fleet, poised Baba Yaga is a surprise. At the peak of the final rushing upward scale, the first chord of Great Gate of Kiev arrives attacca, "resolving" it; Sokhiev moves smartly through the closing statements, eschewing heavy rhetoric, for a satisfying conclusion. 

The Tchaikovsky symphony certainly begins promisingly. The full-throated horn fanfares immediately seize attention, and the change of color and texture at 1:06, when clarinets and bassoons take over, is a nice touch. Sokhiev launches the main theme with assurance, with velvety string pulses gently nudging it forward; in the graceful, lilting second group, the violin duet at 6:25 is clean and quiet, as are the woodwinds at 7:03; the exposition closes thrillingly. But in the development, with its syncopations and hemiolas displacing the basic pulse, a creeping cumulative unease sets in. The tricky cadences at 9:40 and 9:46 are insecure, after which, despite some further attempts to shape and color the phrases, the performance becomes about just getting through. The recapitulation is more settled, but one expected more -- the woodwind phrases in the coda, which could have been luminous, are ordinary. It's a curious trajectory for this movement -- from outstanding to insecure to serviceable -- and it's in keeping with what follows. 

The slow movement starts out well enough, though the various woodwind soli are self-consciously molded, but the under-articulated Trio thickens after 4:41, where the woodwinds and strings seem not quite together as the music builds. The Scherzo works, routinely. In the finale, I liked Sokhiev's clipped phrase-endings in the second subject, but every time Tchaikovsky leads us back to the first theme, the running sixteenth notes accelerate and become slurry. 

Were this a mid-priced issue -- it's going for full price Stateside -- I could recommend the Pictures performance. In a comprehensive library, it'd make a nice foil for a more overtly virtuosic rendering -- Reiner's, say, or Ormandy's (both RCA) -- and it's more interesting than the similarly conceived readings of Karajan (DG) and Ozawa (also RCA). The Tchaikovsky is simply uncompetitive.

Stephen Francis Vasta

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