It takes a bit of thinking to work out the connection between
the works on this disc. But the answer is: the Ukraine. Onyx
don't give artist bios in their liner-notes, so it helps if
you already know that Karabits is Ukrainian. The Little Russia
of Tchaikovsky's symphony is the Ukraine. The Bare Mountain
on which Mussorgsky spends a night is, it turns out, a real
place in the Ukraine. And Pictures at an Exhibition –
well, its the finale obviously.
Another startling connection between Tchaikovsky 2 and Pictures
is the opening of their respective finales, which for about
eight bars sound almost identical. That comes as quite a surprise
when you think about how different Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky
were as artists, and the ground between them certainly opens
up as the two movements progress. Even so, they were written
within just a few years of each other, so some kind of cross-influence
can at least be suggested.
Even though the Second is among the least recorded of Tchaikovsky's
symphonies, there is still stiff competition from a wide variety
of contenders. Coincidentally (I think), one of the most impressive
recordings on the market is the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra's
previous recording, under Andrew Litton from the early 1990s.
Then, as now, the piece really worked to the orchestra's strengths.
They have had a succession of Russian or Russia-obsessed conductors
over the years who have nurtured a real sense of Slavic spirit,
especially in their readings of Tchaikovsky’s more folksy works.
Karabits takes a slightly more laid-back approach than Litton,
going more for atmosphere than drive. This works very well in
the first two movements, although the Scherzo is a bit flaccid.
Tempos in this third movement are on the slow side, and there
is little in the way of drive from the accents or dynamics.
Otherwise this is a fine reading. There are one or two problems
of tuning and ensemble here and there, but the soloists redeem
all, especially the lead horn and bassoon in the first movement.
The original version of A Night on Bare Mountain has
only recently come to wide attention. The idea of finding it
on a populist programme like this even ten years ago would have
been unthinkable. One reason for that is that it is quite difficult
to pull off. It is more congested than Rimsky's revision, with
lots of overlaps between the sections. But Karabits is able
to make it work. The orchestra is on excellent form here, and
all those vital details come through. Able to rely on his forces,
he takes the piece at a driving pace, exaggerates contrasts,
and generally just gives it everything. The three works on the
disc are all played well, but this is the standout performance.
It is one of the few recordings of the original version that
don't make you wish you were hearing the revision.
Pictures at an Exhibition gets a similarly dramatic reading.
Again, Karabits really stresses the contrasts of dynamics. His
tempos are moderate, but never dull. There is a lot of very
legato playing, which sometimes threatens the momentum. In the
opening Promenade for example, the trumpet solo really
leans on the slurs, and when the full string section enters,
it is like a wall of sound, with little apparent articulation
or phrasing. Again, the orchestra's fine soloists - none of
them named, sadly - elevate a worthy performance into a satisfying
and worthwhile one.
All round this is an enjoyable recording, with some fine playing
and interesting interpretive ideas. Whatever the Ukrainian links,
the coupling still feels random though. Much as I love both
Mussorgsky works, I'd far rather have heard Karabits' take on
Tchaikovsky's First Symphony. It is to be hoped that they're
saving that one for next time.
Masterwork Index: Pictures
at an Exhibition