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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition [40:32]
Songs and Dances of Death [18.39]
The Nursery (arr. P. Breiner for orchestra) [19:17]
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Peter Breiner
rec. Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, 7-9 February 2012
NAXOS 8.573016 [78:28]

Peter Breiner has been involved as an arranger and orchestrator with Naxos on a number of their previous issues. This is the third Breiner CD to come my way in the last few months and I have thoroughly enjoyed all of them. His orchestration of the Debussy Preludes for piano can be strongly commended (Naxos 8.572584). It was clear from this Debussy recording that he had done his homework and the same attention to detail was very much in evidence in his arrangements of the Tchaikovsky operatic suites (Naxos 8.573015).
He has now tackled Pictures at an Exhibition, following in the footsteps of Ravel, Stokowski and Ashkenazy to name but three. This Breiner version packs a real punch. It may be less elegant and sophisticated in its approach when compared to Ravel but this is a genuine attempt to produce a powerful, hard-hitting piece of work for the modern day symphony orchestra. There are no gimmicks - it’s just a new way of looking at the score and adding extra sonorities and layers to the sound. In this respect it is closer to Stokowski than to Ravel. There are, however, some movements in this new orchestration that are very similar to Ravel’s classic version and this is a testimony to Breiner’s honesty. He’s not made changes just for the sake of it. Judged as a piece of orchestral wizardry it’s incredibly exciting and it contains some genuine hair-raising moments. The sound-world of Hollywood is often not so very far away.
The work starts very gently with a Promenade featuring alto flute, cor anglais and strings. The music then builds and the texture fills out to include the full orchestra. Gnomus relies on heavy use of percussion. We are treated to swirling clarinets, harp glissandi and whooping horns. This is high voltage stuff, reminiscent of a Hammer horror film. This subsides and is followed by another Promenade, this time led by a solo cello. The Old Castle is very special. In Breiner’s hands it becomes The Haunted Castle and very spooky it is too with its tolling bells and tuned percussion. The opening theme is given to the bassoon with a piccolo adding an unusual antique effect: an octave plus a fifth above. Bydlo has to be heard to be believed. This is no ordinary ox-drawn cart, it’s a huge monster of a juggernaut and there is an epic sense of struggle going on here. Heavy timps, horns and wood blocks - the hooves I presume - make this a massive, exhausting ride. The Ballet of the Chickens and Samuel Goldberg don’t stray too far from Ravel’s orchestration in spirit but Schmuyle is depicted by woodwinds and strings rather than the difficult, slightly clumsy part that Ravel gifted to the solo trumpet. All hell breaks loose in The Hut on Fowl’s Legs with its heavily orchestrated multi-layered sound - Stokey would have approved of this, for sure. The percussion department has a field day and the whole thing is tremendously exciting. The same can be said of The Great Gate of Kiev and this brings the piece to an overwhelming, all engulfing close. This doesn’t replace Ravel but it certainly sits happily alongside it and makes for a refreshing, highly spectacular change.
This is a well filled disc and the two suites are a very substantial bonus. In these two song-cycles, Breiner has successfully replaced the vocal parts with instrumental lines shared by one or more orchestral soloists. Mention must be made of the contributions by the violin solo in Serenade and the cor anglais player in Trepak. Having come out with all guns blazing in Pictures, Breiner takes a more low key, subtle approach in many of these short pieces, especially in The Nursery. There are still some powerful climaxes to be heard, one prime example being the highly impressive treatment given to The Field Marshal.
Playing standards are exemplary throughout. The orchestra clearly enjoyed playing for Breiner and the recording is bright and punchy. Overall this is great value for money and a worthy addition to the Mussorgsky discography.
John Whitmore 

Previous review: Paul Corfield Godfrey

Masterwork Index: Pictures at an exhibition