Arrangements and orchestrations generally come in one of two shapes and sizes. Either they are conscientious attempts by the arranger to imitate the style of the original composer and sometimes the arranger is the composer him or herself. Either that or they are completely new versions of the work reflected through the eyes of the orchestrator and employing all the instruments and techniques available.
Versions of Mussorgsky’s phenomenally difficult and rather unpianistic suite Pictures at an exhibition usually fall into the second category. The most famous arrangement by Ravel makes full use of instruments such as the alto saxophone, celesta, xylophone and tenor tuba which were either totally unknown to Mussorgsky or very rarely employed during his lifetime. I know, by the way, that Ravel’s score merely specifies ‘tuba’ - but the solo during Bydlo is so high that it is usual for players to use a second and smaller instrument during performances.
I have also reviewed a set of orchestrations of Debussy’s Préludes by Peter Breiner. These, by and large, fell into the category of imitations of Debussy’s impressionist style. In this version of the Pictures he has not stinted himself with any of the modern developments in orchestral technique. Indeed the only orchestration that I know which seeks in any way to adhere closely to Mussorgsky’s own orchestral practice is that by Vladimir Ashkenazy. Oddly enough the insert for this CD release includes a quotation from MusicWeb International’s Brian Wilson in which he states that “Not since I heard Stokowski conduct his own orchestration at the Proms in 1966 have I been so impressed with an alternative to the Ravel”. The disc had not yet been issued or reviewed by this site. Mr Wilson’s comments come from a review of the download which was made available earlier. There he recommended the CD release that we are given here.
An alternative to the Ravel this version very definitely is. Where the French master produced a series of small characteristic tone-poems. There he sometimes altered Mussorgsky’s dynamics, as in Bydlo, to show the oxcart coming and going. Where Ravel thereby achieved plenty of variety throughout the work, Breiner here gives every movement the full modern works in terms of orchestration. This gives us a series of pictures in primary tone-colours with very little sense of light and shade. Sometimes, for example in Bydlo (track 7), the percussion is simply too insistent. At other times there are piquant effects which may not be authentically Mussorgskian but still manage to illuminate the music. One example is the horn glissandi in Gnomus (track 2), a delightful piece of grotesquerie. Even the Promenades are given the full treatment, with full orchestra conjuring up a Prokofiev-style sound, which reaches an over-the-top apotheosis in a Great Gate of Kiev (track 16). This manages - but only just - to cap everything that went before it.
The other two items on this disc are real curiosities, settings of Mussorgsky song-cycles without the words. These simply conjure up the atmosphere of the poems by orchestral means alone. Again Breiner uses a full romantic band, including in The nursery such modern instruments as marimba and vibraphone in addition to glockenspiel, xylophone and celesta in the Songs and dances of Death. The results are strangely alluring. One would like to hear these orchestrations with singers declaiming the original words. The Songs and dances have been arranged for orchestra before. Breiner’s transfer of the vocal lines to various instruments is well managed and often very beautiful - such as the cor anglais in Trepak.
For those, like myself, who are fascinated by the different treatments that composers and arrangers over the years have dished out to Mussorgsky’s Pictures, this disc will be an interesting and valuable addition to the very substantial number of various versions of the work. There are indeed sufficient variety of orchestrations for Leonard Slatkin some years ago to have compiled an ‘omnibus’ edition using different composers for each section of the work. A good many of these have never been recorded in their entirety. Each brings a new slant on a familiar work, and all are welcome.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Masterwork Index: Pictures at an exhibition (orch.)