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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Ma Mère L'Oye - Suite (1911) [16:04]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition (1874/1922) (orch. Maurice Ravel) [32:08]
Anima Eterna Brugge/Jos van Immerseel
rec. Concertgebouw, Bruges, Belgium, 17, 19 January 2013

If you chose to believe the publicist’s puff, ‘historically informed’ performances will help to strip away years of stultifying musical practice leaving works revealed in all their original glory. The claim on the disc’s cover is that the music is “rendered freshly and vigorously on period instruments … the masterful oeuvres of Musorgsky — the spelling is a moveable feast — and Ravel will once again tickle every listener’s imagination, and are bound to surprise with their scintillating sounds and visionary qualities.” Just how valid a concept can be is all but impossible to know for certain. Where we have a recorded legacy by early or original performers the value is even more debateable.

What is not in doubt is that the musicians in Anima Eterna Brugge are brilliant technicians. Quite whether their artistic director Jos van Immerseel works on a similar level of interpretative brilliance is much more open to doubt. Strip away the obviously audible differences; mellower woodwind and less strident brass and in fact these are rather plain and occasionally under-characterised performances. The Ravel Mother Goose Suite is considerably more successful overall than the grander Mussorgsky orchestration. A beautifully sinuous flute solo or gruff contra-bassoon — the playing of Séverine Longueville is a characterful delight throughout the disc — bodes well. However, comparison with any famous version: say Charles Munch in Boston on RCA or Jean Martinon on EMI with the Paris Opera, reveals with the former a far greater dreaming freedom and with the latter an authentic French orchestral sound. How much of the clarity of texture is the result of the ensemble and how much good engineering is also open to debate. I found myself wondering if the percussion instruments used were modern reconstructions of older instruments – as timpani and bass drum might well be – or simple good modern versions. The cymbals and xylophone sound suspiciously modern. Also, the pitch is very clearly modern – again would this be dictated by the use of ‘fixed’ modern tuned percussion?

Given that the entire disc plays for a ridiculously miserly sub-fifty minutes I wonder why the more common five movement suite from Mother Goose was used and not the slightly extended complete ballet. Another issue of authenticity raises its head with the famous Ravel orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and this is a question of scale. The liner lists the orchestral strength of Anima Eterna Brugge as having 8 first violins, 8 second violins, 8 violas, 6 cellos and 5 double basses. Ravel made his orchestration as a commission from Serge Koussevitsky. The first performance was given in Paris on 3 May 1923 — the commission was in 1922 not 1920 as the liner states — but the first American performance was in November 1924 in Boston. Very interestingly the Boston Symphony archives are available online including all their programmes. From the extensive 68 page ‘book’ for this important concert we learn that the string strength of the BSO in the 1924-25 season was 31 violins (no division between first and second violins is made), 12 violas, 10 cellos and 9 double basses. In other words not far off double the playing strength on this disc. Regardless of bow types, string construction, vibrato or fingerings this difference in number of personnel alone will have a major audible impact and undermine the claims of authenticity for this new disc. I cannot say for sure that the entire BSO string department played in this concert but given the flagship nature of the work – Koussevitsky retained exclusive performing rights for some years – and its virtuoso nature I cannot imagine anything except the fullest possible complement.

Performance pitch again is modern. There are effective touches in the performance – a lovely saxophone solo in The Old Castle including the bluesy bend into the very last note that I’m not sure I’ve ever heard before – to the point it had me reaching for my score to check. Solti, Szell, Svetlanov and Slatkin omit it completely. Likewise the audible difference between the tongued flute figurations of The Tuileries contrasting perfectly with the same figures played slurred by the oboes. The brass group does blend well with a nicely cohered sound not led, as all too often, by an overly dominant principal trumpet. For these felicities there are many disappointments. The opening Promenade suffers from some oddly short-breathed phrasing away in the trumpet – the score has no indication to this effect – it is marked simply f with tenuto lines over each note. The main issue is that time and again the music as performed lacks wit or drama. The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks or the Marketplace in Limoges are singularly earthbound. The Gnome is in no way a nightmarish character and Baba Yaga fails to thrill in the way it should. Every orchestra struggles to make The Great Gate of Kiev the crowningly powerful conclusion Mussorgsky envisioned. This is basically because even an orchestral genius such as Ravel could not translate the concept into a practical orchestration that allows climax to pile on climax. All too often – as here – one feels the maximum dynamic is reached well before the final bars and then all the players’ efforts go into maintaining that level at best. Immerseel wisely picks a fairly flowing tempo to compensate for this but these are passages where you need every player on deck and the lack of string weight shows again.

The ripely resonant recording – the Concertgebouw Bruges seems to have a big resonant overhang noticeable whenever the bass drum in particular is played - tries to compensate and overall it is technically very good. The disc follows current fashion by being presented in an attractively minimalist cardboard gate-fold sleeve with the liner tucked into a slot on the inside front cover. The liner is in four languages, French, English, Flemish and German. It is reasonably interesting in a rather verbose way but has too many errors and inconsistencies – the spelling of Musorgsky/ Mussorgski is one, in the track-listing on page 3 giving the date of Ravel’s orchestration as 1942 is another, saying Baba Yaga flies through the air on a broomstick instead of a pestle and mortar is a third. This is symptomatic of a lazy and careless approach to the writing and proofing that I find unforgivable in a premium price product. Others have found Immerseel’s approach to similar repertoire revelatory, I was hoping for much more here – a desert of disappointment with the occasional oasis of technical brilliance.

Nick Barnard

Masterwork Index: Pictures at an Exhibition