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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881) Pictures at an exhibition (1874) orch. Ravel (1922) [32:40] Night on bald mountain (1866/7) [10:25]
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Igor Markevitch
rec. Versöhnungskirche, Leipzig, 14-18 May 1973 BERLIN CLASSICS 0300891BC [43:09]
Fierce rivalry between record labels has long offered western consumers a sometimes bewilderingly wide choice of recordings of standard repertoire. But from the fall of the Iron Curtain until the end of the Cold War there was little if any such commercial competition in the countries of the Soviet Bloc. East German music enthusiasts, for instance, enjoyed the output of a small range of monopolistic state-run labels - whether Amiga which issued what passed for rock and pop music, Aurora which specialised in lustily singing workers lauding the delights of the supposed socialist Utopia, or their classical music equivalent Eterna.
I doubt very much whether anyone today can whistle even a passable version of an East German pop hit. As for workers' songs, they probably only sell these days to tourists as kitsch souvenirs of a long-lost era: I confess to buying a couple of CDs of them at the Budapest park to which old statues of Lenin, Stalin and the rest have been retired - though gems like Forward together, with the party and the people and We thank you, Comrade Rakosi! are best heard, I have to say, after a pint or three of strong beer. The Eterna label, though, was a different matter altogether. East Germany, after all, had within its borders some of the great centres of German classical music-making - notably Dresden, home of the Staatskapelle, and Leipzig where the Gewandhaus Orchestra was based. The recordings under review were originally issued on Eterna in the early 1970s and are now brought back into circulation by Berlin Classics.
Similarly reissued East German material has often showcased performances by the leading Soviet conductors and soloists of the time, dispatched on tour around the Eastern Bloc in an attempt to bolster political and cultural solidarity. This recording, on the other hand, finds the Gewandhaus directed by Igor Markevitch, a conductor who lived and worked primarily in Western Europe.
Markevitch still enjoys a good reputation among collectors. His Tchaikovsky symphony cycle with the London Symphony Orchestra, for instance, has always been well regarded and was often the middle-of-the-road, nothing-too-extreme version of choice until, for those who like that particular approach, it was displaced in the 1980s by Mariss Jansons's Oslo set. No doubt MusicWeb readers will have their own personal favourite Markevitch recordings: mine include a glowing 1966 performance of Gounod's St Cecilia mass with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and soloists on Deutsche Grammophon (review) and a fine disc devoted to Rimsky-Korsakov - Scheherazade and Capriccio Espagnol - that featured on a Philips Universo LP (6580 025 10) released in 1970. With this newly released material we now have the opportunity to sample the conductor's work in music by another member of the so-called Mighty handful, with Pictures at an exhibition heard, unsurprisingly, in the familiar form of Maurice Ravel's very French and twentieth century orchestration.
Many of Markevitch's recordings are characterised by what John L. Holmes has described as "considerable tension and incisiveness" (John L. Holmes Conductors: a record collector's guide [London, 1988] p.177). Striking orchestral clarity is another quality that several commentators have identified. Daniel Barenboim, for instance, recalls in his autobiography how, in his conducting classes, Markevitch "insisted on rhythmical precision and balance, and he was very keen on clarity of sound, clarity of rhythm and clarity of gesture" (Daniel Barenboim A life in music [London, 1991] p. 28). The author of this CD's booklet notes, Dirk Stöve, reaches a similar conclusion and suggests that this performance of Pictures is especially successful because "the recording venue favoured [Markevitch's] aesthetic preferences. The acoustics of the Versöhnungskirche... permit a striking clarity and directness of sound, whereas the conditions in other, mostly older churches often lead to a blurring and darkening of the orchestral timbres".
The superb quality of the sound is, though, only one of this performance's considerable plus points, for this is also a very well conceived and executed account of Pictures. After a decidedly brisk opening Promenade, The gnome's grotesque spikiness is brought out unusually effectively thanks to the conductor’s mastery of orchestral colour. The old castle gives us a notably lyrical account of the Italian troubadour's romance and, while the children at the Tuileries may seem a little more restrained than usual, the succeeding Bydlo demonstrates Markevitch's strong control over dynamics - as the heavy Polish is cart relentlessly approaches and then disappears into the distance - and orchestral balance. Equally successful are a Ballet of the unhatched chicks, where the conductor really does major on the episode's delicately balletic elements, and a superbly characterised and again notably well-balanced depiction of Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle. The Gewandhaus players' virtuosity is displayed in a vivacious performance of The market place at Limoges, after which they create a evocative if not especially distinctive picture of the spooky Paris Catacombs. Finally, after a vigorous but comparatively controlled depiction of The hut of Baba Yaga, The great gate at Kiev is revealed in all its sonic splendour - which this disc, "mastered", so we are told, "from the original Eterna master tapes", has absolutely no problem at all in bringing out, except, perhaps, for a rather puny chiming bell at the very end.
After Ravel's orchestration of Pictures, we hear Rimsky-Korsakov's version of Night on bald mountain which, back in 1973, was the one that was almost always played. Nowadays, when we are more familiar with Mussorgsky's primary-coloured original, Rimsky’s rearrangement/reorchestration is sometimes disparaged but, as performed here, it remains a tremendously exciting piece in its own right. Markevitch demonstrates an individuality of approach from early on: note how, for instance, just a slight tweak allows him to bring out the particularly "Russian" rhythms of the short passage from 1:23 to 1:38. The emphasis on sonic clarity that critics have consistently identified in his music-making allows us to hear and appreciate the finest detail from beginning to end.
Unfortunately, however, that word "end" highlights an issue that some potential buyers will face with this particular disc. That's the fact that the disc draws to a close after less than 44 minutes, thereby negating one of the big advantages of the compact disc format. While I might not go as far as those who reject such an abbreviated release on sheer principle, that 43:09 running time certainly gives me pause. Did Markevitch really record nothing else in East Germany that could have been added appropriately to this CD's unfilled capacity?
Potential purchasers will also be aware of the huge competition in this repertoire. As I write, the invaluable MusicWeb Masterworks Index lists and reviews no less than 49 competing versions of Ravel's orchestration of Pictures - and Night on bald mountain probably wouldn't be far behind. As the 50th entry on that list, Markevitch's performance will, from an artistic point of view, certainly occupy a well-regarded - though not the highest - place.
My own favourite Pictures on CD is a 1999 live performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra directed by Evgeny Svetlanov (review). That is, however, a highly subjective and idiosyncratic performance that will not be to all tastes. For a safer option, I'd be inclined to second my colleague Steve Arloff's recommendation of a disc from the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine under Theodore Kuchar (review). Not only is that available at the very competitive Naxos price point, but it also adds extra Mussorgsky material. As well as Pictures, you get not only the hopak from Sorochinsky Fair and Golitsyn's exile from Khovanshchina but also Night on bald mountain in both the composer's original and Rimsky's revised versions, all in very fine modern (2001) sound.