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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Ravel) [34:43]
Songs and Dances of Death (orch. Shostakovich) [20:56]
Night on Bare Mountain (original version) [12:50]
Ferruccio Furlanetto (bass)
Mariinsky Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, Russia, Songs and Dances of Death: Feb 2010, Night on Bare Mountain and Pictures: June-July 2014)

I have a lot of time for this Pictures. Gergiev is at his best when he is handling Russian passion at its most raw and unrefined; I’ve always thought that Mussorgsky suited him much better than, say, Tchaikovsky. When matched up with his own orchestra, he doesn’t disappoint here.

The first Promenade sets up the disc as it means to go on. The solo trumpet is bold and extroverted — and loud — while the supporting brass are rich and resonant and the strings are big and fat. The sound, too, is brilliantly clear. It’s one of the disc’s biggest selling points, in fact, repeatedly allowing instrumental details to shine through in an exciting way. Listen to the harp in the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks, as but one example.

Each picture is very well delineated, but the slower ones are especially evocative. The Old Castle has a dreamy, visionary quality to it, as if the castle is enchanted by a spell, and the brass are eerily resonant in the Catacombs, with just the right space around the sound to make it beautiful yet spooky. Gergiev’s trademark grunts are mercifully absent, though you hear him loudly enough as he urges the orchestra on through The Marketplace at Limoges.

Baba Yaga’s ride is taken slower than you might expect, but it still sounds tremendously exciting, giving the lie to the oft-repeated truism that Gergiev achieves all of his effects cheaply: this one is done by careful build-up of tension. The Great Gate goes for it right from the start, seeming to turn things up to 11 right from the off. I feared that they then wouldn't be able to sustain it, never mind beat it, but the thrilling peroration proved me wrong.

The Songs and Dances of Death are even finer. There is something dark and blood-curdling about Furlanetto's voice that makes him perfect for this cycle. Pathos is there in Lullaby, but also sardonic humour and bitter remorselessness in response to the mother's pleading. Furlanetto personifies the mother's desperation very well, and produces a chilling fade on death's final note. He is also chillingly persuasive in Serenade and blackly sardonic in Trepak, even in the final, cruel allusion to the coming of summer. The orchestra come into their own in The Field Marshal, spitting out the noises of battle, but Furlanetto is equally impressive here, partly because he gives voice to the banality of death and its repetitive nature. This is a thunderous, majestic performance, though be warned that the booklet provides neither song texts nor translations.

Gergiev’s empathy with the raw, untamed Mussorgsky comes into its own with the original version of Night on Bare Mountain. Yes, this music is fierce and unrefined – you can see why Rimsky-Korsakov’s European sensibilities must have thought that it needed amending – but it has a power all of its own and the Mariinsky orchestra follow Gergiev in bringing it to pounding, thumping life. The differences between the versions are manifold – most obviously, in the original there is no reference to the morning or to the pacifying effect of the church bells. It’s especially interesting that Mussorgsky’s slower, gentler theme, of which there is no hint in Rimsky’s version, seems to carry a power all of its own.

The recorded sound is very good, into the deal, and the essays in the booklet are helpful. It’s a shame about the lack of sung texts, but otherwise this is 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.

Simon Thompson



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