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Russian Spectacular
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Night on the Bare Mountain (1867, compl. & orch. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov) [12:06]
Pictures from an Exhibition (1874, orch. Maurice Ravel) [33:43]
Mily BALAKIREV (1837-1910)
Islamey (1869, orch. Sergei Lyapunov) [8:31]
Alexander BORODIN (1833-187)
Prince Igor - Polovtsian Dances (1890, orch. Rimsky-Korsakov and Anatoly Liadov) [11:54]
Singapore Symphony Chorus & Youth Choir
Singapore Symphony Orchestra/Lan Shui
rec. 2018, Esplanade Concert Hall, Singapore
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from
Pdf booklet included
BIS BIS-2412 SACD [67:38]

I’ve long admired BIS’s Lan Shui/Singapore SO recordings, from Seascapes in 2007 to the concluding instalment of the ‘quite splendid’ final volume of their Debussy ballet series in 2019. In between, they’ve covered a fair amount of Russian and other repertoire, much of which points to a fine ensemble led by a pleasingly unpretentious conductor. (Lan Shui, MD of the orchestra since 1997, retired from the post in January 2019.) Indeed, it’s no coincidence the albums singled out above were among my top picks for the years in question.

In my early record-collecting days, an LP cover emblazoned with the word ‘spectacular’ was the audio equivalent of catnip. Those that lived up to the name whetted my appetite for system-stretching sonics. The famous Telarc LPs, with their mischievous stickers about possible damage to one’s woofers - the Erich Kunzel/Cincinnati Pops’ 1812 springs to mind - were especially enticing. As it happens, their 1978 recording of the Mussorgsky pieces, with Lorin Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra, remains my benchmark for that coupling. Although the aloof American wasn’t popular in the UK, on a good day he was hard to beat. And if you just want Pictures, with assorted fillers, Eduardo Mata and the Dallas Symphony, recorded in 1981, is pretty exciting, too (Sony). Fast forward to 2019 and the François-Xavier Roth/Les Siècles Pictures. John Quinn had good things to say about that performance, but I found the phrasing, tempi and some of those period-instrument timbres a little too quirky for my taste (Harmonia Mundi).

As for the Borodin, it’s been included in numerous compilations in the past. One such is Romantic Russia, with Sir Georg Solti and the LSO. A Decca/Kingsway Hall recording made in 1966 - Gordon Parry and Kenneth Wilkinson presiding - the collection includes a rather splendid account of the Polovtsian Dances. Unusually for this conductor, the music thrills without being overdriven. And while there are comparatively few recordings of Islamey in its orchestral form, I’ve much enjoyed Evgeny Svetlanov’s earthily authentic 1988 recording with the USSR State SO. The coupling, Sergei Lyapunov’s Symphony No. 1, is well worth hearing, too (Olympia).

Lan Shui’s Night on the Bare Mountain may lack the sheer weight and slam of Maazel’s, but the upside is that his more considered and spacious reading - complemented by Rita Hermeyer’s fine recording - reveals an astonishing amount of colour and nuance. In that sense, the presentation is more musical than Maazel’s. The playing is very good indeed, harpist Gulnara Mashurova’s contributions simply exquisite. It certainly helps that the recording gives the music - and musicians - so much room to breathe. As a bonus, one’s also reminded of what an accomplished and intuitive orchestrator Rimsky really was. This is a most illuminating performance, although I suspect some listeners will prefer a bigger, bolder presentation. As an aside, this conductor’s thoughtful, revealing musicianship is mirrored by that of pianist Alessio Bax, whose ear-pricking arrangement of the piece - with Konstantin Chernov - is a must-hear for all Mussorgskians. That album, yet another Recording of the Year, also contains a first-rate account of the original Pictures (Signum).

From the first Promenade, it’s clear Lan Shui, like Roth, aspires to a lighter, attractively transparent take on Ravel’s Pictures. Indeed, one could argue it’s very French, emphasising as it does the orchestrator’s musical heritage as much - if not more - than the composer’s. The splendid recording comes into its own in the work’s quieter moments; for instance, the second Promenade has a chamber-like intimacy that can’t fail to please. But, as expected, the larger canvases are more of a problem. The Gnome is reasonably well characterised, the bass drum - unlike the (in)famous Telarc one - powerful without threatening to overwhelm the orchestra. As for The Old Castle, the sax solo fairly well taken, it surely needs a lot more heft and thrust than it gets from Lan Shui and the SSO. Not only that, the conductor’s approach - too measured, mostly - drains the music of energy and colour, one picture indistinguishable from the next. That ox-cart lumbering across the landscape, is a major disappointment. It’s unaccountably sluggish, and the performance isn’t helped by sometimes tentative brass playing.

Lan Shui and his doughty band fare much better with the precision and point of Tuileries, The Market at Limoges and The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks. The musicians are alive to all this animation, delighting, too, in Ravel’s orchestral wizardry. Alas, Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle appear slightly anonymous, the show-stopping Hut on Fowl’s Legs lacking essential urge and amplitude. And while the conductor, unhurried as ever, finds a degree of splendour in The Bogatyr Gate - the SSO’s tam-tam just marvellous - Maazel and Mata are unrivalled at this point. Goodness, it’s hard to believe those remarkable recordings date back to the late 1970s/early 1980s.

Happily, these Singaporeans make up for that rather frustrating gallery tour with a colourful, rhythmically alert performance of Islamey. Now that’s more like it, conductor and orchestra revelling in Lyapunov’s exhilarating arrangement. In passing, those interested in the original piano version need look no further than BIS artists Freddy Kempf and Alexandre Kantorow. There’s more good news, though; Lan Shui, his impassioned players and transported singers end the programme with a quite magnificent rendition of the Polovtsian Dances, that elemental, pounding bass drum superbly caught. (Indeed, even the great Solti is left wanting here, the Decca sound now showing its age.) In short, a thrilling, genuinely spectacular sign-off to this programme.

Only one performance is below par, the rest are excellent; good sound throughout.

Dan Morgan

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