Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (CD review)

Also, original piano version; Night on Bare Mountain; Tchaikovsky: The Seasons. Alexander Warenberg, piano; Igor Markevitch, Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig. Brilliant Classics 94931 (2 CD set).

As you no doubt know, the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) wrote Pictures at an Exhibition in 1874 originally as a piano suite. He called his little tone poems "sound pictures," but they didn't catch on too well with the public. Years later, several people orchestrated the suite, the most famous and most often recorded being the 1922 version we have here by French composer Maurice Ravel. The value of the present set, beyond a pretty good rendition of the orchestral arrangement, is having both the original piano version and the Ravel orchestration together, albeit on separate discs. The other two items, Night on Bare Mountain and Tchaikovsky's The Seasons are icing on the cake.

Anyway, the set begins with the Ravel orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition, performed by Igor Markevitch and the Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig. Mussorgsky based the various sections of the suite on his musical impressions of paintings by his friend, the artist and architect Viktor Hartmann. The idea of the work is that one is wandering through a picture gallery viewing the paintings, which the composer recreates in music, going so far as to give us a musical number, the Promenade, to accompany our stroll from time to time.

I had never heard Markevitch's recording of Pictures before, but I had long admired the Maestro's work. So it didn't surprise me that I liked his interpretation as much as I did. There is more energy in this reading than in most other renditions, even among my favorites like Reiner (RCA), Muti (EMI), Ansermet (Decca), and Maazel (Telarc, LIM).

And it's not just that Markevitch takes each section at a fast clip; he invests each little tone picture with genuine personality, too. For instance, the "Promenades" are quick but unhurried excursions around the gallery; "The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks" is merrily affectionate; "The Market" exhibits a wonderful feeling of busy scurrying about; and "The Hut on Fowl's Legs" conveys an appropriate sense of manic dread. In fact, it's only in the final segment, "The Great Gate of Kiev," that Markevitch begins to seem a little perfunctory, not quite capping off the proceedings in as grand a style as I might have liked. Nevertheless, that's not to say it's a dull ending, just not quite as emotion-packed as I'd have liked. Overall, this is a fine rendering of an old favorite.

The other selection on disc one is Mussorgsky's Night on Bare Mountain, here done in the familiar reorchestration by Rimsky-Korsakov. It's another musical picture that Mussorgsky wrote a few years before Pictures at an Exhibition, this earlier one depicting St. John's Eve on Bald Mountain; that is, a witches' Sabbath occurring on St. John's Eve, which the composer finished up on that very night, June 23, 1867. Whatever, Markevitch rips through the piece in short order, serving up most of the music's images in exciting fashion. It's not really as frightening as it could be, though, as the conductor seems more interested in producing thrills over developing much fear or suspense.

Igor Markevitch
Disc two offers us a pair of piano solos by pianist Alexander Warenberg. The first one is the original piano version of Pictures at an Exhibition. Warenberg's way with the Pictures is rather gentle, as though he were handling museum pieces with kid gloves. They sound lovely in their own way, but they don't always convey the emotions I associate with the music. Warenberg's interpretation possesses little of the vivid character I heard more recently as part of a recital by pianist James Brawn on MSR. Still, there's a certain piquant charm in Warenberg's more-cautious, laid-back readings, particularly in the "Hut" segment, where he finally comes alive. It doesn't stop him from a rather sedate rendition of the concluding "Gate," though.

The second item on disc two is The Seasons by Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). It's a set of twelve relatively brief character pieces for solo piano that the composer wrote in 1875. I enjoyed Warenberg's Tchaikovsky more than I did his Mussorgsky. The pianist appears to be a most-sensitive soul, and his temperament seems to suit the nature of Tchaikovsky's music. It's lonely and melancholy, shining and enthusiastic by turns, nicely reflecting the moods of each of the months.

Markevitch made his Mussorgsky recording in 1973, releasing it originally on an Eterna LP. Warenberg recorded his piano version of the Mussorgsky plus the Tchaikovsky piece for Brilliant Classics in 2000; Brilliant Classics reissued them both on the present two-disc set in 2014. The sound in the orchestral numbers is vibrant, alive, rich, and resonant. It's also a tad brighter and more forward than one usually hears from the Gewandhaus Orchestra, which generally sounds a bit darker and more golden-hued than this. Nevertheless, the detail shines through admirably, and despite a slightly close miking arrangement there is plenty of orchestral depth. Additionally, you'll find a fairly wide dynamic range, reasonably strong impact, and a decent sense of hall ambience. The piano sound is lighter, more distant, quieter, and more rounded. It's more of a mild, easy listening sound than the orchestral material.

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