Mussorgsky: Orchestral & Vocal Works

Author: 
John Warrack

Mussorgsky: Orchestral & Vocal Works

  • Pictures at an Exhibition
  • (A) Night on the Bare Mountain
  • Songs and Dances of Death

Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition has so much established itself as the standard version (even tending to push the original piano suite into the background) that others have been virtually obscured. It must be a long time, for instance, since Sir Henry Wood's version had an airing. Here is the orchestration made in the same year as Ravel's, 1922, by the Slovenian composer and violinist, long resident in Finland, Leo Funtek; and highly interesting it is. To detail every difference from Ravel is scarcely possible, and in any case the very full and useful sleeve-note spells a good many of them out. But in general one can say that where Ravel is concerned to turn the piano pieces into an orchestral work in its own right, rich in colour and sonority, Funtek is more concerned with the original character of the pieces, especially as he believes them to interpret Victor Hartmann's original pictures. There are, nevertheless, losses: not only is Ravel's ear perceptive, but character can of course be interpreted in different ways. Ravel's bass tuba for "Bydlo" is a brilliant idea not matched by Funtek's bass clarinet; Funtek's cor anglais has a point for "The old castle" which is less sharp with Ravel's elegant saxophone. In one matter, Funtek softens Mussorgsky's point to advantage, where Ravel's sharpens it. This is with "Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle" (two separate pictures, in fact, though joined musically). It cannot be denied that Mussorgsky was anti-Semitic: his depictions of the swaggering rich Jew and the whining poor Jew are unpleasant, to put it mildly, and the effect is made worse by Ravel's snivelling muted trumpet but considerably eased by the more compassionate woodwind scoring of Funtek. This is a special point. But anyone who loves Mussorgsky's suite will surely be fascinated to hear this unfamiliar version. It is well played and on the whole well recorded, though in one or two places (such as the garbled opening of "Gnomus") definition could be cleaner. 

Another unfamiliar orchestration is that of the Songs and Dances of Death by Kalevi Aho, who also explains his intentions and methods in the sleeve-note. These, broadly, are to accommodate the bass voice in general and Martti Talvela's in particular, while heightening the character of the songs and their psychological drama. It is very successful, and sombrely colourful without being obtrusive. Talvela sings the songs with tremendous intensity and a sustained, sinister passion. The fill-up on this interesting and generous record is a splendid performance of A Night on the Bare Mountain. A real collector's item for lovers of Russian music, and one not to be missed by Mussorgsky's own special enthusiasts.

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