March 18, 2015
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; Songs of Dances and Death; Night on Bald Mountain
Ferruccio Furlanetto, bass. Mariinsky Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
Total Time: 68:30
The music of Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) should need little introduction. He was among one of the “Mighty Handful” Russian composers (Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov) who hoped to revitalize music by focusing on the vast countries national musical heritage and character. Unable to make a living primarily as a composer, he entered the civil service to support himself composing on the side. The present collection brings together three of his most significant works performed by the Mariinsky Orchestra under the direction of Valery Gergiev.
Pictures at an Exhibition was a set of piano pieces that essentially introduced a host of techniques and harmonic ideas that was unprecedented in Russian piano music at the time. There have been many orchestrations of the work, but it is the one by Maurice Ravel (from 1922) that seems to have stood the test of time. Gergiev’s tempo on the promenade, and elsewhere, moves a bit quickly as we hurry in to see the ten Hartmann paintings upon which the work is based. The second, “Il Vecchio Castello”, has a moody and languid cloudy that allows for great contemplation and that beautiful saxophone solo to float above the orchestra. The Mariinsky Theater concert hall in St. Petersburg proves to be the perfect venue for this music to shine with the engineering creating a realistic picture and right amount of ambience that really allows the “Tuileries” to shine. The following “Bydlo” is not quite as ponderous, but the character of the work is still captured. Here is music that certainly finds one thinking of Shostakovich and Prokofiev’s great slow movements. The chicks and hens music is simply delightful in an almost perfect ballet. “Limoges” equally bubbles along. Gergiev’s performance seems to find the right balance here to keep slower movements from bogging down and thus creates a real forward movement to the work as each new idea appears. When the final Kiev gate appears, the majesty of the music is beautifully handled by the brass and by the time we have contemplated this work, one wants to return to the exhibition and start all over. This may be one of the finer performances of this work yet (though might not supplant your personal favorite) with a few surprising tempo ideas that manage to work very well and breathe new life into this masterpiece of orchestration and Russian music.
Shostakovich orchestrated the Songs and Dances of Death (which Mussorgsky began working on in 1875) in 1962. The four movements feature an intriguing exploration of this topic taking inspiration perhaps from Dostoevsky novels and are among the most profound pieces on this topic in music. The dark colors of the bass voice certainly allow this work to take on a different feel and it makes the opening “Lullaby” heartbreaking with a fine dramatic interpretation of this mother’s pleading. The following “Serenade” is equally chilling. Things will pick up a bit in the rawer “Trepak” about a peasant freezing in the Russian forest who has a brief dance with death before succumbing to the cold. The orchestra is fairly restrained throughout the earlier songs but in “The Field Marshall”, the stops are pulled out a bit more for this death in battle reflection as the orchestra adds extra color. Furlanetto’s performance is quite compelling and clearly sets out the texts here with great dramatic inflection and emotional power.
The final work is perhaps the most familiar orchestral piece, Night on Bald Mountain. There is no orchestrator or editor listed and this does sound more like Mussorgsky’s original version (first recorded by Claudio Abbado for RCA years ago, and on Gergiev’s VPO recording). The result is an opportunity to experience the amazing raw power of this first Mussorgsky orchestral work. Gergiev’s performance manages to capture the excitement of the opening with the central dance allowed to contrast some of the lyricism of the melodies. The ending will be a bit surprising for those more familiar with later adaptations of the work, but it fits quite well as an example of the period.
The orchestral performances were recorded most recently (June and July, 2014) with the song cycle recorded in February 2010. The sound here is simply amazing being enhanced by the expanded range in this hybrid SACD release. Gergiev is of course on good ground here with a critically-acclaimed performance with the Vienna Philharmonic of the orchestral pieces being among the most recommended. But here he is served quite well by the sound with crystal clear textures allowing for each work to create its own evocative colors and moods. The booklet is fine, but there are not texts or translations for the song cycle which is a bit unfortunate with such a fine performance.