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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 a Bare Mountain (original version) [12:50]
Ferruccio Furlanetto (bass)
Mariinsky Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, Russia, February 2010 (Songs), June-July 2014 (Pictures, Bare Mountain)
Reviewed as a 24/96 download
Pdf booklet included

Not another Pictures, I hear you groan, and the ubiquitous Ravel orchestration too? If nothing else it’s one of those blockbusters that seldom fails to entertain; throw in the original version of Mussorgsky’s Night on a Bare Mountain and Shostakovich’s take on the Songs and Dances of Death and this promises to be a collection to remember. Oh, and there’s Valery Gergiev and his Mariinsky Orchestra as well; their latest recordings – including Shchedrin’s The Left-Hander – are now available to download from Hyperion's website.

I’m so used to seeing this maestro looking a little crumpled, having shuttled in on a red-eye just hours before the concert. All too often his hectic schedule produces performances that are somewhat lacking, but when he’s on form Gergiev is well worth hearing. Of his Mariinsky recordings I was much impressed by his explosive account of Shostakovich’s The Nose and Leningrad Symphony. The recordings are generally good, if not class-leading. This is a Classic Sound production, although I gather that their relationship with the Mariinsky may be at or near its end.

Gergiev’s Pictures – which he also recorded with the Wiener Philharmoniker some years back – seems unusually refined. Not only that, the conductor is very relaxed as well; his rather dreamy account of The Old Castle is a case in point. That’s not ideal in the highly pointed Tuileries, but the level of colour and detail makes up for that. It’s only when we get to that lumbering oxcart, Bydlo, that it all starts to sound more efficient than exciting. I have long admired Lorin Maazel’s Cleveland Pictures on Telarc; his Bydlo looms far larger than this, and his gripping, often febrile approach to the work as a whole is infinitely preferable to either of Gergiev’s.

That said, the Mariinsky Orchestra play well and the recording is good. One could argue – with some justification – that Telarc turned the Maazel recording into a hi-fi spectacular, but in spite of that musical values are still paramount. Moreover, the Cleveland Orchestra outshine their Austrian and Russian counterparts when it comes to vim and virtuosity. At least Maazel isn’t part of the soundtrack; Gergiev’s vocal exertions during The Marketplace at Limoges are very intrusive indeed. As for the latter’s Catacombs they’re notably lacking in atmosphere; ditto Cum mortuis, which has a self-indulgent, rather gilded quality that I don’t care for at all.

Predictably, perhaps, Gergiev turns up the wick for the final numbers; Baba-Yaga certainly has an element of excitement, but for reasons I can’t quite fathom it isn’t as arresting as it should be. Even The Great Gate of Kiev, the highpoint of Maazel’s account – and, indeed, that of Eduardo Mata and his Dallas band on RCA/Sony – seems rather lacking in scale and grandeur. Good as the Mariinsky recording is it’s not that much of an advance on either the RCA/Sony or Telarc ones. That’s a side issue, I suppose, for it’s the performance that really matters; alas, that just isn’t up to snuff either.

What of the Songs and Dances of Death, presented here in Shostakovich’s austere orchestration? Gergiev has recorded this before as well, with the youthful-sounding Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Furlanetto’s Lullaby is lovingly voiced, although he is apt to over-emote at key points. Even so, he’s a model of restraint compared with Evgeny Nestorenko in his Melodiya recording with pianist Vladimir Krainev. That said, his quiet singing is pleasing enough. Again, I’m less than convinced by Gergiev’s contribution, which seems almost perfunctory at times; that’s particularly true of his unyielding Serenade. In Trepak and The Field Marshal Furlanetto is dutiful rather than idiomatic – his Russian is rather soft-edged – but he does have a pleasing line.

It may be something of a curiosity, but the original, warts-and-all version of Night on a Bare Mountain - rather than Rimsky's more polished one - is always worth a listen. My preferred recording of this is Abbado's on DG; he also offers a rather bright but strongly characterised set of Pictures and some rare choral fillers. By comparison Gergiev lacks animation and colour; in short it's another tidy but anodyne outing. All three works are well represented in the catalogue, so this newcomer needed to be rather special to challenge the best of them. Alas, it isn’t and it doesn’t.

These performances burn with a low flame; even Gergiev groupies are likely to be disappointed.

Dan Morgan

Previous review: Simon Thompson