Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (CD review)

Also, Songs and Dances of Death; The Nursery. Orchestrated and conducted by Peter Breiner, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.573016.

As I’m sure you’re aware, the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) originally wrote Pictures at an Exhibition in 1874 as a piano suite. He called his little tone poems “sound pictures,” but they didn’t catch on too well with the public. Years afterward, several people orchestrated the suite, the most famous and most often recorded versions being the one by French composer Maurice Ravel in 1922 and to a lesser extent the one by Leopold Stokowski in 1939. From Ravel’s orchestration on, the music took off and became the basic-repertoire piece we know today. And that brings us to the current recording, a new orchestration of the work by the noted Slovak pianist, composer, and conductor Peter Breiner, which Breiner conducts with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

In a booklet note, Maestro Breiner tells us, “In this recording I was trying not to re-create Mussorgsky’s orchestral sound, but a contemporary sound instead. I wanted to achieve this without using any unusual instruments and to stay within the limits of the traditional symphony orchestra, but with a substantial expansion in woodwind and percussion as well as unusual combinations and settings.... At the end a body of 104 musicians produces quite a spectacular sound in The Great Gate of Kiev.” How well you may like this new version and how you take to Breiner’s playing of it are, of course, matters of taste. From my own perspective, I found it a bit more difficult to get over Maestro’s Breiner’s rather overly relaxed conducting than his own orchestration of the music.

For example, I can't help thinking that some listeners might be a little disappointed with the opening Promenade, which Breiner takes at an almost-funereal pace, at least compared to more-common interpretations from the likes of Reiner, Ansermet, Slatkin, Maazel, and such. Not that Breiner's approach isn't justified, however; many people enjoy taking their time wandering through art museums, studying and enjoying each picture in their own leisurely fashion. It’s just that in terms of a musical performance, it doesn't always make for the most exciting or dramatic reading.

And so it goes, with Breiner providing slower than usual tempos throughout but compensating with huge dynamic contrasts as well. The results are certainly different, making some things like The Gnome more characterful (or grotesque, depending) than usual. Moreover, The Old Castle is appropriately gloomy; the peasant oxcart is properly lumbering, even more so than is customary, its pace punctuated by loud thumps from the percussion section; The Ballet of the Chicks is sweet and dancing; the marketplace bustles with energy and activity; and the Catacombs are suitably dark and eerie.

Which brings us to the two closing items, The Hut on Fowl's Legs, the hut of Baba Yaga the witch, and then the imposing Great Gate of Kiev, both of which come off well enough in Breiner's new version and under his easygoing direction. The Hut is especially impressive with its new percussive elements, and even though The Great Gate is slower than we normally hear it, it conveys a significant power and grandeur.

As I mentioned, Breiner says he wanted to create a more contemporary sound with his new orchestration, which he probably does. With all the added woodwinds, it's a smoother, warmer, more sophisticated sound, yet it's one that can also appear leaner than we get from Ravel, despite the expanded number of players. Then, too, while Breiner was going for a more contemporary sound, the added bells and percussion tend to make the whole affair seem more reminiscent of nineteenth-century Russia than modern Russia. In any case, it's a calm, plush, well-upholstered sound that is easy on the ears, helped further by the Naxos engineers.

Coupled to the Pictures we get two lesser-known Mussorgsky works: Songs and Dances of Death and The Nursery, both made up of songs arranged for orchestra by Maestro Breiner. They fluctuate from light and lovely to heavy and grim, always a touch melancholy, and continually fascinating.

Producer Wayne Laird and engineer Paul McGlashan recorded the music for Naxos at the Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, New Zealand in February 2012. The sonic experience they obtained is typical of Naxos: big and bold, with a wide stereo spread, a mild reverberation, and, in this case, a good depth of field. Although the midrange is a tad soft, the bass and treble sound well extended. Good, strong dynamics complement the presentation and provide for a reasonably realistic hall sound.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa