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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition (original piano version (1874) and the orchestration (1922) by Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)) [33:48; 36:17]
Oleg Marshev (piano)
Odense Symphony Orchestra/Jan Wagner
rec. Carl Nielsen Hall, Odense, 1-4 May 2001 (orchestral version) and 19-20 February 2009 (original version). DDD
DANACORD DACOCD656 [70:13] 
Experience Classicsonline


When I was starting to listen to classical music the chance of hearing the original (piano) version of Pictures was a rare thing. One would have thought that the music only existed thanks to Maurice Ravel. I remember reading that the reason pianists seldom played the work was because it was unpianistic. Perhaps it doesn’t lay easily under the hands but it certainly isn’t unplayable. It suffered because of the obviously orchestral colouring which the composer sought. The strangest idea I ever heard was that the piano version was, in reality, a very full sketch for an orchestral version which Mussorgsky never got round to making. I now wonder if excuses were being made for Ravel’s orchestration.
 

As a piano work Pictures at an Exhibition is now seen as the masterpiece it so obviously is. To be sure, it needs a pianist with a huge technique to get round the, admittedly, sometimes crazy writing, but the result, in performance, is quite exhilarating. Marshev has the technique for this work and he gives a very fine performance indeed. What’s more, he has obviously given much thought as to how to present the piece. His performances of the Promenade, which appears five (and a half) times is given quite deadpan; he knows that this isn’t the most important music here and he won’t allow it to overshadow the pictures themselves. This is an excellent idea and I welcome it. Marshev sometimes takes liberties with the tempi and dynamic markings but he is always in control of what he is doing. Thus Gnomus might not be the most malevolent and nasty fellow but he’s slippery and quite unfriendly and the Old Castle is creepily dark and haunted – more Bates Motel than Clifford’s Tower. Marshev never overstates anything and thus The Grand Gate of Kiev is well sustained but never allowed to become overblown. This is a fine performance indeed and well worth having but my first choices still rest with Sviatoslav Richter (The Sofia recital 25 February 1958 – magnificently re-mastered on Philips PHCP-9597 (coupled with Schubert, Liszt and Rachmaninov miniatures)) and the two Horowitz versions. The latter can be heard on RCA Gold Seal 09026605262 – coupled with miniatures (1947 studio recording) and 603212RG (the hair-raising 1951 Carnegie Hall recital - coupled with a live 1943 Tchaikovsky 1st Concerto with Toscanini – where he touches up the writing and plays even more notes than Mussorgsky wrote but he plays at white heat. Be warned, although quite outstanding, his interpretations are not for everyone and anyone wanting a more thoughtful and straightforward account will be very well pleased with Marshev. 

Jan Wagner’s performance of the orchestral version is just about right. He is one of the few conductors who understand this to be what it is; a French work based on a Russian original. As with Rimsky’s tamperings with Mussorgsky’s works, where he rounded out all the jagged edges, Ravel has done the same for Pictures. This orchestration is colourful and entertaining but it is far too “gentlemanly” for this rugged music. But it’s enjoyable enough and I know it gives a lot of pleasure. Like Marshev, Wagner never allows the music to become bloated and he keeps a firm hand on the performance. 

This is a good coupling and anyone interested in both versions of this score will be well pleased with the disk. The recorded sound is crisp and clear for Marshev but a little recessed for Wagner, but everything is clearly audible, with the most discreet positioning of the percussion. A delightful disk.

Bob Briggs



 

 


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