MUSSORGSKY Pictures at an Exhibition PROKOFIEV Symphony No 1
The Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Paris play Russian repertoire very well. In the past season I’ve heard them perform Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov operas with a good deal of colour. Here, released from the pit and conducted by their music director Philippe Jordan, they play Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony. It’s an odd pairing and the Prokofiev comes off distinctly better.
The performance of Pictures is just too pristine and lacking in character, Mussorgsky buffed up with plenty of French polish. The playing is excellent, from the cool beauty of Daniel Gremelle’s saxophone solo in ‘Il vecchio castello’ to the silky soft strings in ‘Con mortuis in lingua mortua…’, but the rough edges have been sanded away to such as extent that what’s left is pebble-smooth. Is this a fault of Maurice Ravel’s orchestration? I don’t think so. Listen to Valery Gergiev on his Mariinsky recording or – even better – Theodore Kuchar with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine on Naxos and there’s a ruggedness, an earthiness that draws out the Russian character. Jordan doesn’t really dig into the darker portraits in Mussorgsky’s gallery – the grotesque ‘Gnomus’ or the sinister ‘Hut on Fowl’s Legs’ – although he does benefit from a fabulous recording where the bass-drum thwacks really register.
The delicate ‘Frenchified’ numbers are elegant: ‘Limoges’ prattles pleasantly and the children in the Jardin des Tuileries are somewhat well behaved. Jordan’s chicks dance daintily, metronomically, in their shells, but turn to the Russians and there’s a quirky giddiness to their chicks, almost tripping over in their eagerness, which is genuinely funny. The highlight comes at the very end, with an expansive ‘Great Gate of Kiev’ (or, more correctly, ‘The Bogatyr Gates’, as given in the track-listing) in which the bell thunders out.
After this, the Classical Symphony is played with panache, the glossy Parisian veneer perfect for Prokofiev’s Haydnesque wit. Woodwind solos are exquisitely played, especially the garrulous flute passages in the helter-skelter finale. The OdP orchestra probably performs the Gavotte a good deal (Prokofiev later used it in his ballet Romeo and Juliet, never far from the Paris stage) and it’s cheekily dispatched here. But would you buy a disc for a Classical Symphony?