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Modest Petrovich MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition (1874, orch. Ravel, 1922) [34:42]
Songs and Dances of Death (1875, orch. Shostakovich, 1962)* [20:56]
Night on a Bare Mountain (original version, 1867) [12:50]
Ferruccio Furlanetto (bass)*
Mariinsky Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, Russia, 2010/14. DDD/DSD
No texts.
MARIINSKY MAR0553 SACD [68:28]

Reviewed as mp3 download from classicsonline.com and 24-bit download from hyperion-records.co.uk (with pdf booklet).  Also available as Hybrid SACD.

Simon Thompson thought this ‘an admirable collection. It doesn’t knock other great Pictures off the shelf — Reiner’s Chicago version still sounds incredibly fine to my ears — but as a whole the disc works very well indeed’.  (review).  I’m slightly less enthusiastic, but not by much.

Gergiev made an earlier recording of Pictures at an Exhibition and Night on a Bare Mountain with the VPO for Philips (4685262).  That recording also contained two short pieces, but the inclusion of Songs and Dances of Death on the new Mariinsky recording makes for a more substantial programme in every sense.  You can compare the two recordings from Qobuz.

That earlier performance stressed the earthier Russian side of the music with a performance of the closing Great Gate of Kiev fit to have brought it down if it had ever existed – it didn’t, except as a plan.  The same was evidently true of a performance given with Gergiev at the helm of the Met Orchestra in 2008, which Bruce Hodges reviewed for Seen and Heard: ‘From the gorgeous bassoon and saxophone moments in ‘The Old Castle,’ to the bustling trumpets in ‘The Market at Limoges’, the work sometimes seemed like a gallery of mini-concertos.  I challenge anyone to top the swagger and sheer volume level produced for the finale, when Gergiev and the ensemble pulled out all the stops as if the Kiev gate had burst open, unable to remain closed with the onslaught of sound’.

With his own Russian orchestra you might expect the new performance to demonstrate these qualities to the nth degree and so, to a considerable extent, it does.  Certainly I enjoyed this recording much more than Gergiev’s recent LSO Live accounts of Berlioz’s Harold in Italy and Cléopâtre but I did wonder at times, as I did with that Berlioz recording, if he was trying to live down his image as someone who drives the music hard.

In some respects one of my favourite classic recordings captures both the colour of Ravel’s scoring and the power of the music more effectively than Gergiev: Ernest Ansermet with the OSR on Australian Decca Eloquence 4800047, coupled with the Rimsky-Korsakov arrangement of Night on a Bare Mountain, Balakirev’s Tamara and some short works – review.  Though the Ansermet is somewhat more refined than his earlier mono version – not always to its advantage – he lets rip with a powerful Great Gate of Kiev.  It’s rather more expensive, at around £7.50, than when I first reviewed it, but it’s still well worth considering.

Lorin Maazel on Telarc CD80042 (download as LIMUHD056 – DL News 2014/6) brings the Pictures to a really rip-roaring conclusion by performing the Great Gate in just 4:40.  Gergiev, who takes almost a minute longer, sounds somewhat tame by comparison; though there’s compensating grandeur I didn’t feel that the gate was about to burst open, as BH did with the live performance.  At 41 minutes, with just Night on the Bare Mountain as coupling, the Maazel recording is short value but the price of around £7.50 compensates.  Better still, it’s available in mp3 and lossless sound from eclassical.com for $7.37.

Another powerful recording of Pictures, this time in Stokowski’s transcription, comes from the BBC Philharmonic and Mathias Bamert on Chandos CHAN9445 – on CD, or download in mp3 or lossless sound from theclassicalshop.net.  I’ve had a soft spot for Stoki’s vivid orchestration ever since I heard it at the Proms in the early 1960s, though it’s a shame that he omitted Tuileries and Limoges as too French.  All concerned are in fine fettle in a performance which combines power at the climaxes, including The Great Gate, with sensitivity.

The Chandos recording comes with a symphonic synthesis from Boris Godunov and Night on a Bare Mountain, both orchestrated by Stokowski, the latter falling mid-way between the original and the Rimsky version.  If you remember Fantasia, you will recall the power of Stoki’s transcription of that work as used in the film.  Good as this half-way version is, however, there’s more sheer raw energy in Gergiev’s performance of the original and you may well choose the Mariinsky recording for that alone.

The remainder of the new recording is taken up by fine performances of Songs and Dances of Death.  I preferred Gergiev in Berlioz’s Cléopâtre to his Harold in Italy, perhaps inspired by his soloist, and here again I believe that Ferruccio Furlanetto inspires him to give more than in his account of Pictures.

There’s one other recording which combines Pictures and Songs and Dances, both orchestrated by Peter Breiner and performed by him on a Naxos CD and blu-ray audio – review.  Both the orchestration and recording are very powerful, especially if your blu-ray player is hooked up to your audio system.

The mp3 download of the Mariinsky recording doesn’t open out quite ideally in Pictures, though there’s nothing amiss with the mp3 in Songs and Dances and Night on a Bare Mountain, where all the power of the performances is well conveyed.  Change from mp3 to the 24-bit lossless version from Hyperion and the sound improves noticeably: it even made me more sympathetic to this recording of Pictures than I had been from the mp3.  The 16-bit lossless version costs only £0.01 more than the COL mp3 at £8.00 and the Studio Master 24-bit costs £12.00.  There’s another reason for preferring the Hyperion download – as with their own recording of the piano version, they are just about alone in calling the main work Pictures from an Exhibition, which I understand to be more correct that the ubiquitous Pictures at an Exhibition.

The download comes with the full booklet.  It’s most informative, though it doesn’t specify which version of Night on a Bare Mountain is employed except to say that ‘now the turn has come for the finest of the composer’s versions’ which I take to mean 1867, before Rimsky-Korsakov’s tinkering as used by Gergiev on his earlier recording.  There’s only one recording which goes slightly better: Theodore Kuchar with the Ukraine National SO performs both the original and the Rimsky revision (Naxos 8.555924, with Pictures) and there’s just enough room on the new recording for this to have been done.

The booklet comes in multi-lingual form but several lower-case italic letters of the Cyrillic version come out wrong.  More seriously, the booklet is devoid of the necessary texts and I assume that the same is true of the SACD – it’s the same booklet.

A good but not overwhelming Pictures, then, coupled with a powerful rendition of Songs and Dances and the original Night in a performance which makes the recording worth having for that alone.

Brian Wilson

Previous review: Simon Thompson

 

 




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