Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; Songs and Dances of Death; Night on Bare Mountain
The loudest noise I’ve ever experienced in the concert hall was courtesy of Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky (then Kirov) Orchestra. Admittedly, it was in the congestion-ridden Barbican Hall, but the “Great Gate of Kiev” climax of Pictures at an Exhibition was ear-shattering – in a thoroughly wonderful way. Gergiev recorded Pictures with the Vienna Philharmonic in concert in 2000, issued on SACD in the days when Universal half-heartedly dabbled in that medium. Now, a new version, also recorded in SACD, arrives with Gergiev and his orchestra on home turf in the concert hall of the Mariinsky Theatre.
From the opening “Promenade” – the theme which links several of Viktor Hartmann’s “Pictures” as Mussorgsky wanders around the gallery – you notice an earthier sound from the Mariinsky: a rougher-grained trumpet than the smooth, rounded Vienna brass. In general, the darker, more sinister numbers come off significantly better in this new version. Gergiev delights in the growling basses and slithering strings in “Gnomus”, while in “Bydło” the Mariinsky ox-cart lumbers and grumbles along far more effectively than the smooth ride given in Vienna. “Baba-Yaga” features a thunderous bass drum attack and “The Great Gate of Kiev” (designed by Hartmann but never built) is immense, at a much slower pace. Gergiev’s new Pictures are painted in dark hues and rich oils.
The Vienna Phil occasionally comes off better in the lighter numbers, such as “Limoges”, but “The Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells” in this new version has a nicely prominent harp to add glitter. Gergiev’s new recording has such Russian weight and earthiness that it’s preferable to his Philips recording.
However, the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, under Theodore Kuchar, offers stiff competition at budget price. Take “Il vecchio castello”… the Vienna saxophone is silky soft while in St Petersburg, Gergiev takes the pace much slower, with a smoky, hazy sax sound. Kuchar takes things at a much more flowing tempo, reminding you that this picture is supposed to depict a troubadour singing outside the castle walls.
“Il vecchio castello”:
“Samuel Goldenberg und Schmuÿle” make for another interesting comparison. The Vienna string sound is rich and firm, with a precise, clean attack from its trumpet. The Mariinsky trumpet offers more stinging commentary, but I also like the Ukrainian trumpet, which has a fabulous, whining tone.
Kuchar takes a much brisker view of the finale, but it’s just as cataclysmic, and who can’t resist a “Great Gate” from Kiev itself? The Ukrainian oboe is more piquant than his Mariinsky counterpart, though it won’t be to all tastes. On the whole, Kuchar’s version remains my favourite, but this new Mariinsky recording has plenty of character.
Gergiev also included Night on the Bare Mountain on his earlier Vienna disc but here switches to Mussorgsky’s original orchestration. The work’s complicated history includes a terrific choral version intended for Mlada, a collaborative opera-ballet, which ended up as an interlude in Sorochyntsi Fair. The original version of this witches’ sabbath is more rugged than Rimsky’s glossy makeover, which Gergiev recorded previously. Piccolo flicks conjure up a whiff of sulphur and the orchestra is on scintillating form.
In between these showpieces come the Songs and Dances of Death, in Shostakovich’s orchestrations. Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto captures the pain behind these songs, just as he does in one of his great operatic roles, Philip II in Don Carlo. He doesn’t have the vicious snarl of Boris Christoff, but delivers the text with great sensitivity. He coos and soothes in “Lullaby”, the “Serenade” has plenty of lilt and sardonic humour. Furlanetto lacks some of the bite and power for “The Field Marshal”. A highlight comes with “Trepak”, with sinister bass clarinet threatening the drunken peasant as he stumbles in the blizzard. However, a black mark to Mariinsky Live for not including texts and translations for the four songs in the CD booklet.