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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition (1874, orch. Sergei Gorchakov) [33:56]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Cinderella Op.87 (1945) (selections) [37:02]
Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra/ Miguel Harth-Bedoya
rec. live, Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Performance Hall, Fort Worth Texas, 7-9 April 2017 (Cinderella), 2-4 February 2018 (Pictures).

This is the first disc I have heard released as part of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra's own "FWSO Live" series. And as with so many similar ensembles, the calibre of the production is very high with impressive playing from all sections of the orchestra backed up by sympathetic engineering in the accommodating acoustic of the Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Performance Hall, Fort Worth Texas.

Apart from supporters of the orchestra, the main interest for general collectors here is a complete performance of Sergei Gorchakov’s orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition. Leonard Slatkin included his version of ‘Gnomus’ in his two recordings of a conspectus collection of Pictures and Kurt Masur favoured this arrangement too - performing it in concert with the New York PO as well as recording it for Teldec with the LPO. Peter Ustinov narrates(!) a version on RCA of this arrangement too with the Krakow PO - I have not heard either of these versions for comparison. Biographical details of Gorchakov are non-existent online as far as I can tell with the only reference being this arrangement which he completed in 1955 and Wikipedia describes – oddly – as “uniquely Russian”. Certainly, Gorchakov prefers a less luxuriant orchestral palette, he still uses a large orchestra but with fewer filigree touches or ‘novelties’ such as the saxophone in ‘The Old Castle’. Gorchakov does feature a saxophone – in the ‘Two Jews, one rich one poor’ movement – I think the liner’s mention of this as potentially referencing Klezmer music is an interesting and valid one. Heretical though it might be to say, I have never been wholly convinced by the ubiquitous Ravel orchestration. Of course it is a brilliant display of what a 20th Century virtuoso orchestra can achieve. But this comes at the cost of a certain musical tension between the rough-edged keyboard original and the glamour of the Ravelian orchestral palette. I seem to remember that Ashkenazy when presenting his own re-working of the score cited a desire to orchestrate in a manner that stayed truer, whatever that means, to the composer’s intentions.

Broadly speaking I assume this was Gorchakov’s intention too and I have to say I think he is very successful throughout. It strikes me that there would be little value in comparing and contrasting Ravel and Gorchakov in this review. I like Gorchakov’s handling of the percussion throughout, except for some excessive cymbals in the closing ‘Great Gate’; there is some very effective use of the woodblock for instance and a ghoulish xylophone. Likewise, ‘Bydlo’ lumbers into the immediate foreground, as indicated in the piano original, without Ravel’s tasteful trundling into view and away. In Ravel’s defence, this crescendo/decrescendo was an editorial addition in the published version of the piano original that Ravel would have had access to. Throughout, music director/conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya is a sensitive and impressive guide. He draws from the Fort Worth musicians playing of real character and considerable virtuosity. As recorded, the orchestra do not make the most obviously sophisticated sound but, as mentioned, this chimes in with the nature of the Gorchakov orchestration. I enjoy listening to the widely diverse approaches to orchestrating this cycle: Leo Funtek’s version written at nearly exactly the same time as (and in ignorance of) the Ravel is another favouring a nominally Slavic approach. Oddly, conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste produced his own performing edition which is a combination of the Funtek and Gorchakov orchestrations. Saraste’s justification is that neither Funtek or Gorchakov alone provide enough variety within their versions to seriously compete with Ravel. Surely it is the job of the conductor to persuade an audience that the opposite is true – if you don’t believe the piece is worth doing – don’t do it at all. I have heard Saraste’s version and it is rather good, but strikes me as neither one thing nor the other while lacking the novelty “compare and contrast" value of the Slatkin approach.

The remainder of this Fort Worth disc is taken up with a thirty seven minute sequential selection of excerpts from Prokofiev’s great ballet Cinderella. Further heresy; I prefer this work to the ever-popular Romeo and Juliet. Harth-Bedoya has chosen his own selections as none of the pre-existing suites follow the narrative, so in that sense this is a logical and rather neat distillation of the full score. More so than in the Mussorgsky, there is a slight sense that the Fort Worth strings, whilst neat and nimble, are not able to generate the ideal weight of tone when playing Prokofiev’s angular and anguished high-lying lyrical melodies. Likewise, the mechanistic drama of the midnight bells does not register as powerfully as it can. The upside of the recording is that good inner detail is revealed in a way that is not always the case, but for sheer theatrical drama other conductors and orchestras are able to wring more power from this music. So, sections such as ‘Shawl Dance; [track 18] and ‘The interrupted departure’ [track 19] are sprightly and characterful whereas ‘Duet of the Prince & Cinderella’ and the following ‘Midnight’ [tracks 24 and 25] are just a fraction too detached for me. In music such as this Rozdestvensky in his complete recording finds a perfect balance between the headily ecstatic and the seeringly direct. Harth-Bedoya does not seem to want to pursue this sense of dream/delirium - he is best when the music is at its most objective. As mentioned, the selection is well-conceived but there will always be omissions that one laments – here there is no Act II ‘Grand Waltz’ which I would happily trade for the included ‘Courtier's Dance’. But throughout the disc Harth-Bedoya is a clear-headed and judicious conductor; his tempi are apt and well chosen, his control of the orchestra clear and his characterisation of the music effective.

These performances have been taken from live concerts in front of an all but silent audience (enthusiastic applause is retained after each work, the Mussorgsky being especially well-received). The fifteen-page English-only booklet includes good detail about the music, a note from the conductor, an orchestral list and the usual biographies. As mentioned before, the engineering is good, as recorded the hall is acoustically neutral rather than generous for the orchestra. Inner detail is well balanced, with the percussion especially well caught. For the collector looking for an orchestral alternative to the Ravel this Pictures is certainly a version well-worth hearing. Cinderella is a certain masterpiece but here the competition is far sterner with Ashkenazy, Previn, Pletnev as well as Rozdestvensky, all offering impressive versions of the complete score with many other conductors offering the three suites or selections of their own. As a concert performance any audience member would come away very happy but whether this has such enduring qualities to demand repeat auditions or a place in a collection above all others I am not so sure.

Well-played and wisely conducted this is an enjoyable if not utterly compelling disc.

Nick Barnard



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