MUSSORGSKY Pictures at an Exhibition. Songs and Dances of Death
There are now at least 20 orchestrations of Mussorgsky’s Pictures, a good half of which have been recorded, but Ravel’s brilliant if somewhat prettified version continues to be the one to which conductors turn again and again. It suits Gergiev’s approach, which is surprisingly mild with some of the characterisation. ‘Gnomus’ is agile rather than grotesque; ‘The Old Castle’ sorrowful (with a nicely mournful saxophone solo) rather than haunted; ‘Baba-Yaga’ grotesque but hardly alarming; and the children quarrelling in the ‘Tuileries’ seem lively and impeccably behaved. The cattle of ‘Bydπo’ slouch along well, to a fine ponderous tuba solo (though the muted horn echo near the end is barely audible). ‘Two Jews, Rich and Poor’, which can seem unpleasantly smug and snivelling in Ravel, is less so in the piano original; and Victor Hartmann’s two paintings are actually each of them in their way both dignified and touching, something Gergiev emphasises. He is in his element in the ‘Catacombs’ and with the grandeur of ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’.
It seems strange to have chosen an Italian for the quintessentially Russian Songs and Dances of Death but Furnaletto has Russian credentials (as Boris Godunov, no less), and he follows Gergiev in singing a touching lullaby for the dying child; while if the drunken peasant is a litte heavy-heeled with his trepak, Field Marshal Death drills his troops chillingly (the four-language notes do not, culpably, find room for texts and translations). A Night on the Bare Mountain is splendidly macabre, one of the best performances on this rather mixed collection.