Half measures: Jansons’ Pictures lack light and shade

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition

Mariss Jansons/Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (RCO Live)

mussorgsky-pictures-jansons-rco-liveIn galleries nowadays, the visitor can clamp on a pair of headphones and listen to an audio guide while viewing the artwork. Mussorgsky got there first, of course, in his rugged piano sketches describing pictures by his friend Viktor Hartmann, which has since been given orchestral colour in countless versions, most famously by Ravel. It is Ravel’s version which appears on this poorly filled disc, supposedly being offered at a special price, although online sources at the time of its release date don’t indicate much in the way of a bargain. Pictures is the only item and, at 33 minutes, the disc’s not even half-full. It’s tempting to respond with just half a review.

What sort of a gallery guide does Mariss Jansons make? If this exhibition were viewed through anyone’s eyes, it could well be those of Samuel Goldenburg, the rich Jew from the sixth picture. It’s an aristocratic performance, the promenades are dignified and weighty, as if this particular art lover has just had a good lunch. As a result, it’s the ‘heavier’ numbers which come off best in Jansons’s performance; the eloquent tuba in ‘Bydło’, the sonorous depth to the brass in ‘Catacombs’ and the imposingly grand finale. But it’s rather as if the pictures Jansons presents us with are all completed in oils – sturdy, serious, opulent of tone, with sepulchral depth. What’s missing is variation and that’s where Valery Gergiev and, particularly, Theodore Kuchar score. They realize that light and shade are important here, that different media are required for different pictures. Take Gnomus as an example: a diabolical charcoal sketch; Gergiev presents a not-too-distant relation of Alberich – a sinister, shady customer, while Kuchar’s bass clarinet slithers sinuously; or the soft pastels of ‘The Old Castle’, suavely sophisticated in Jansons’s reading, but Kuchar’s saxophone offers a softer velvety texture.

Jansons’s ‘Ballet of the Unhatched Chickens’ is polished and just a little too knowing, whereas Gergiev’s chicks almost fall over themselves, providing good comedy value. Baba-Yaga isn’t going to win any pestle-and-mortar races in the Concertgebouw account, neither is ‘Samuel Goldenburg and Schmuyle’ the sharply drawn caricature you find in Kuchar’s collection. The children in ‘Tuileries’ are too well-behaved, lacking the cheekiness of other versions. As noble as the tuba playing is, ‘Bydło’ rolls along too smoothly, whereas the Ukrainian ox-cart sounds more laboured.

Michiel Cleij’s booklet note describes the transition from piano solo to orchestral transcription, but doesn’t offer the listener a guide to the musical paintings themselves.

Kuchar’s Naxos recording was released shortly after Gergiev’s with the VPO and, although I don’t have the SACD version (now difficult to locate), the sound is most impressive. Kuchar’s brass and woodwind soloists are far more characterful than the Concertgebouw’s and his version trumps this new account. Besides, who could resist a powerful ‘Great Gate of Kiev’ recorded in Kiev itself? If it’s a budget tour of the Exhibition you’re after, Kuchar’s your guide. He even throws in a couple of versions of Night on the Bare Mountain too – Mussorgsky’s unvarnished original and Rimsky-Korsakov’s glossy counterfeit.

Mussorgsky, orch. Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition; Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/ Mariss Jansons (RCO Live RCO 09004)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/ Valery Gergiev (Philips) 470 619-2 (2000)
National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine/ Theodore Kuchar (Naxos) 8.555924 (2001)

This review originally appeared in IRR. 

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