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Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Sadko, arr. Arnaud and Perez [10:39]; The Snow Maiden:
Dance of the Tumblers [3:40]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
St John’s Night on the Bald Mountain, rev. Rimsky-Korsakov
and arr. Arnaud and Perez [9:55]; Pictures at an Exhibition,
arr. Arnaud [30:21]
Ensemble Carpe Diem
rec. 11-14 June 2008, La Côte-Saint-André, Isère, France
HORTUS 070 [54:26]
The Ensemble Carpe Diem here plays arrangements scored for just nine musicians: violin, viola, cello, bass, harp, flute (doubling on piccolo), oboe (doubling on English horn), French horn and percussion. I expected the results to be laughable, or at least to pale in comparison to full orchestrations by the likes of Ravel (Pictures) or Mussorgsky himself (Night). In fact, I expected to share this CD with friends for its comedy value.
But no: this is a terrific CD! I do not know what prompted Jean-Pierre Arnaud and Marine Perez to arrange Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky for nine-piece ensemble (except for a complaint in the booklet notes that modern orchestras are “oversize”), but these transcriptions mostly work, and the performances are enthusiastic and entirely enjoyable. This is a CD to share with friends because it makes for such a wonderful surprise.
The first track is Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko, in an affectionate arrangement which will not really surprise anyone who knows the original version, except insofar as the tiny ensemble generates as much excitement as a real orchestra through judicious solo writing. The main climax includes clever parts for cello and piccolo [8:40-8:55] to provide the necessary emotional edge. Another Rimsky-Korsakov piece, the Dance of the Tumblers, is very effective (and very fun) indeed.
For the Night on Bald Mountain these performers have chosen to play an arrangement of the truncated Rimsky-Korsakov version, rather than Mussorgsky’s wilder (and, to my taste, better) original. This transcription inevitably faces some initial difficulties: the opening calls for a consistent drumbeat [0:13-0:26 and again at 0:54-1:08] which is somewhat irritating. But the rest of the piece goes well, with the hushed close at a faster-than-usual tempo which suits these forces perfectly.
Pictures at an Exhibition opens with a truly inspired arrangement of the “Promenade” for viola and harp. It is one of the most original, and most interesting, moments on the disc, especially since most of the Pictures are simply compressions of Maurice Ravel’s version for full orchestra. One can hear the influence of Ravel in the writing for violin, cello and percussion in “Gnomus”, and, like Ravel, Arnaud and Perez omit the “Promenade” before “The Market at Limoges.”
Yes, this ensemble of nine sometimes cannot match the full orchestra’s power in a major climax, like the end of “The Great Gate of Kiev”. But they are after something else, and if you can set aside your prejudices and listen to these arrangements on their own terms, you will probably enjoy them as much as I have. The performers are uniformly excellent; in particular I enjoyed the piccolo work in Sadko, the English horn in “The Old Castle,” the harp and string playing throughout (the cellist delivers Sadko’s main theme wonderfully at 3:00 and 3:40), and the surprisingly well-arranged and intensely delivered “Baba Yaga”.
I still do not know why the Ensemble Carpe Diem wanted to play this music on just nine instruments. The liner-notes try to argue that justification is unnecessary, saying, as an afterthought, “Should Carpe Diem’s transcriptions need justification, it could be found in the study of … Berlioz-influenced pieces.” What a load of nonsense! These arrangements do nothing to make the music sound like that of Berlioz, or to illustrate the Russians’ debt to Berlioz’s orchestration techniques. I should note, however, that the recordings were made in a commune, La Côte-Saint-André, which is in fact Berlioz’s birthplace.
Look at that quotation again, however, at its beginning: “Should Carpe Diem’s transcriptions need justification ...”. Some projects are justified by historical authenticity, or adhering to the composer’s intentions, or achieving greater clarity of line, or creating a striking connection between musical traditions. This one is justified the old-fashioned way: by sounding good. If arrangements are as enjoyable as these, they do not need to be explained.
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