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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Petrushka (1947 version) [36:22]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Ravel) [33:25]
Lukas Maria Kuen (piano)
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mariss Jansons
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mariss Jansons
rec. 14-17 April 2015, Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich, Germany (Petrushka), 13-14 November 2014, Herkulessaal der Residenz (Pictures)
BR KLASSIK 900141 [69:53]

Mariss Jansons is seventy-two now, and has been suffering from serious heart problems since at least 1996, when he was taken ill during a performance of La Bohème. He has now left his long-running post as conductor-in-chief at the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam, but continues his relationship with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. He directs them in these recordings from concerts given during April of this year and November 2014. Jansons has recorded both works previously; Petrushka with the Oslo Philharmonic, Pictures at an Exhibition with both them and the Concertgebouw.

His concept of both works is admirable; he is a master at characterising music sharply, bringing out the myriad colours and contrasts that exist in these two great scores. In the Bavarian RSO he has the ideal instrument to achieve this, for they are now a truly world-class orchestra, strong in all sections, and with an unshakably secure ensemble in even the most demanding music.

So these are satisfying and absorbing performances. In Petrushka, Jansons captures in equal measure the various aspects of the drama, which Stravinsky depicts so tellingly: the milling crowds, the personal tensions between the three puppets and the pathos of the ending. I found Tableau 4, which is a huge rhapsody on Russian folk melodies, especially wonderful. It acquires an irresistible momentum, before being stopped in its tracks by the bizarre events that bring the ballet to its end. This is a reading fit to rank with the very best on disc – Abbado/LSO on DG, Rattle/BPO on EMI, or – for my money the best in recent years – Järvi/Cincinnati SO on Telarc. My only reservation lies with the recording; the balance seems a bit lop-sided. Generally, it feels quite close-up, though not excessively so. Even so, there are places where the horns in particular, when they are playing softly or muted, as near the very end, are pretty well inaudible.

Pictures at an Exhibition is again given the full Jansons treatment, every detail brought out lovingly. Gnomus (Dwarf) is terrific, and we can hear those sliding string portamenti (track 17, 2:07) more clearly than ever – and it’s the same with the other ‘spooky’ effects. Wonderful too is the feverish activity of Limoges Market but the last few of the Pictures were a slight disappointment for me. The noble brass chords of Catacombs are often obscured by loud strokes on the tam-tam, which, impressive as they are, I cannot find in Ravel’s score; the same instrument also pervades The Hut on Chicken’s Legs. The Great Gate of Kiev is a strangely lack-lustre affair, as if the energy of the participants was flagging … except for that of the tam-tam player.

There are so many top-notch versions of Pictures and this one doesn’t quite get into that category. On the other hand, Jansons’ Petrushka is very hard to beat, and the album is worth having for that alone.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Previous review: Michael Cookson


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