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Dmitry KABALEVSKY (1904-1987)
Colas Breugnon Overture, op.24 [4.47]
Aram KHACHATURIAN (1903-1978)
Excerpts from the ballet Spartacus [23.00]
Rodion SHCHEDRIN (b. 1932)
Concerto for orchestra no.1 (Naughty Limericks) [8.39]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Maurice Ravel) [35.02]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
12 Romances op, 21/7 (orch. Timothy Jackson) [2.34]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra / Vasily Petrenko
rec. 2019, Liverpool Philharmonic Hall
ONYX 4211 [73.51]

I confess myself initially puzzled by this disc – not by the wonderful music or the first-class recording or performance, but by the oddness of this collection of items. It’s as if the orchestra decided to record Pictures at an Exhibition and then ran out of steam. The rest of the works might have been decided by lottery or by throwing ideas up in the air. Then there’s the sleeve. I guess it’s meant to represent a parcel from Moscow (judging by the stamps, which are hard to make out.) It’s cluttered and confused. Daniel Jaffé’s notes on the music are printed in the smallest of typefaces, even though some of it is not well-known. Soloists of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra are not credited (though there is, of course, a website).

I suspect Vasily Petrenko himself had a hand in choosing this all-Russian programme. When I interviewed him a few years ago I found him engaging and with a great sense of humour; it would have been interesting to hear his reasons for choosing this programme. The nearest we can get is Vasily Petrenko’s own website, which describes the disc as a “Russian orchestra showcase… A programme of Russian orchestral classics – with some surprises.” Actually, they’re all surprises. Who would have thought of coupling Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (written in 1874, orchestrated in 1922) with excerpts from Khatchachurian’s ballet Spartacus (written in 1954, better known to the British as the theme tune to The Onedin Line?

Ravel was commissioned to do the Pictures orchestration by the conductor Koussevitsky for his Boston orchestra. Interestingly, the deal meant he had exclusive rights to conduct it for some years – which is why there are several other orchestrations. Koussevitsky’s own version from 1930 is still available (Naxos Historical 8.110154) however that is of course in mono. It’s also five minutes quicker than this version, though Petrenko does not appear to be lingering.

The four Spartacus excerpts chosen combine bits of the first and second suites from the ballet – 23 minutes of music in all. The performance of the big number is restrained but swift, with some lovely solo work from members of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. It rises to a stunning and expansive climax. The other three movements are very interesting. Khatchaturian was a master orchestrator and not short of ideas, though his work often seems frowned on in the west for being too attractive (ho-hum). I wanted more, though I suppose the presence of these numbers will rule out an all-Khatchaturian disc from these performers.

The disc opens with the Overture from Colas Breugnon by Dmitry Kabalevsky, almost five minutes of rollicking brilliance premiered in 1938. It really does sound surprisingly like Leonard Bernstein in Candide mode (1956!). Rodion Shchedrin’s Concerto for Orchestra No 1 “Naughty Limericks” (which may be a dodgy translation; Wikipedia posits “Mischievous Folk Ditties” but acknowledges even that isn’t quite right) separates Spartacus and Pictures. It’s great fun and features some extraordinary orchestration so, now I will have to seek out the other four concertos.

The disc ends with the song Zdes’ khorosho (How fair is this place) from Rachmaninov’s Twelve Romances, op. 12, orchestrated by Timothy Jackson. It was written in 1902 on his honeymoon, but in 1907 it became better-known as the basis for the slow movement of the second symphony. It’s lovely.

So let me re-think my initial puzzlement. Yes, it’s still an odd combination of numbers, united only by their Russian-ness, and I still think the disc’s presentation is less than ideal. However, I wouldn’t want to be without any of these fine recordings.

Chris Ramsden

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