Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition

Orchestral showpieces shown at their stunning best – outstanding value

Author: 
Ivan March

Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition

  • Pictures at an Exhibition
  • (A) Night on the Bare Mountain
  • Khovanshchina, The departure of Prince Golitsïn
  • (A) Night on the Bare Mountain

It was an original and fascinating idea to record both the original Mussorgsky score of Night on the Bare Mountain alongside the Rimsky arrangement, for in many ways they are entirely different works, something Theodore Kuchar underlines by his contrasting interpretations. It may be unfashionable to say so, but however inspired and original Mussorgsky’s draft score is in conception, the all-but-recomposed Rimsky-Korsakov piece is the finer work overall. With a superbly rasping opening from the heavy brass, and thrusting forward momentum, Kuchar readily captures its intitial and recurring malignant force, deftly amalgamating the jollity of Rimsky’s interpolated brass fanfares, then producing a magically peaceful close, with radiant playing from the Russian woodwind. Then, as an interlude, comes Mussorgsky’s merriest Russian dance – the Sorochintsï ‘Gopak’ which older readers will remember from the 78rpm era. Kuchar’s is as infectiously spirited an account as you could wish for, with a neat accelerando at the coda. Then comes a very moving performance of the darkly mournful music from Khovanshchina (what a wonderful opera that is!) to represent Prince Golitsïn’s banishment into exile.

Mussorgsky’s rough-hewn witches’ sabbath shows itself initially as even more malevolent than the Rimsky arrangement, but the witches’ dance which follows is bizarre rather than evil. The orchestra captures its piquant grotesquerie perfectly and Kuchar sustains the tension through the composer’s weird sequential repetitons (which Rimsky wisely cut back) before the brief unearthly coda, which of course is without Rimsky’s dawn-like apotheosis.

Ravel’s orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition was commissioned by Koussevitzky as a showpiece for his superb Boston orchestra, and it proves just as impressive here to demonstrate the excellence of the National Symphony Orchestra of the Ukraine. The colour palette of the woodwind is a joy, as we discover in both ‘Tuileries’ and the deliciously cheeping ‘Unhatched Chickens’; and how beautifully the solo saxophone sings his sad serenade outside ‘The Old Castle’. In representing the bold profile of ‘Samuel Goldenberg’, the massed lower strings show their splendid body of tone, and the punch of the brass entry in ‘Catacombae’ has the richest underlying resonance in a performance full of eerie menace. The percussion come fully into their own in ‘The Hut on Fowl’s Legs’, where the bass drummer adds dramatic weight and point. He is to return to add a continuing powerful impact to the superbly triumphant climax at the ‘Great Gate of Kiev’, with the full, rich orchestral sonority now thrillingly expansive, and Kuchar broadening the final statement of the great chorale to give the listener a tingling frisson of satisfaction.

To sum up, this is a quite remarkable CD on all counts – outstandingly fine orchestral playing, vividly exciting and very Russian music-making and a very tangible sound picture, consistently in the demonstration bracket.

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