Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures

Reissues of selected core repertoire recorded by EMI in the 1950s through to the 1970s

Author: 
Ivan March

Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures

  • Boléro
  • Pavane pour une infante défunte
  • Alborada del gracioso
  • (La) Valse
  • Pictures at an Exhibition
  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1
  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2

Having recently praised the Disky series of Royal Classics two-CD conductor portraits (4/00), I also welcome these new so-called Unesco Classics from the same stable, which again draw on EMI’s back catalogue. This time they are well-filled single CDs, and are also offered at a very competitive price. However, the accompanying notes are a disappointment – for each disc there is rather less than a dozen lines of text!
Yet many of the performances are distinctive. Rudolf Kempe’s coupling of Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth (Pastoral) Symphonies with the Munich Philharmonic comes from a complete set recorded in the early 1970s. The analogue stereo is warm and full, and that suits Kempe’s mellow approach to the Pastoral Symphony. It adds a dimension, too, in the Fifth (particularly in the slow movement), especially when the relaxed reading is the very opposite of a hard-driven Toscanini approach. But the technical drawback is that the CD transfer brings a very beefy bass response, so this will probably suit small machines best.
Giulini’s Choral Symphony dates from the same period. Here the sound is fresher, more immediate, but still full-bodied. The performance certainly does not lack concentration, in spite of a measured, very positive tempo for the opening movement. The Scherzo brings all the bite needed (superb timpani) and the slow movement has real beauty and dedication. The finale, with excellent soloists and the LSO Chorus in splendid form, carries the power and drive of Giulini’s conception through to the end most satisfyingly.
Unexpectedly, we return to Kempe for Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. But he has the Berlin Philharmonic at his disposal, and in fine form too. He does not fully catch the volatility of the opening movement, but the richly smooth orchestral playing illuminates the slow movement, and the weighty force of the ‘Marche au supplice’ is matched in the steady but powerful finale, which is undoubtedly compelling, if ultimately not as earth-shaking as some versions. However, the Vienna Philharmonic are in exciting bravura form for Le carnaval romain. In the Symphonie the 1959 recording is spacious and natural and the sound is remarkably undated.
Menuhin’s second stereo coupling of the Bruch and Mendelssohn concertos was made just a decade after the first, which is now among EMI’s ‘Great Recordings of the Century’. Menuhin’s playing is as distinctive as ever; his timbre is sparer, but his special magic remains, especially in the slow movements. Moreover this reissue adds his striking, lively account of Mozart’s G major Concerto from a decade earlier, when he was still in peak form. He directs his own stylish chamber orchestra accompaniment while playing the solo part with characteristic aplomb. The ethereal Adagio is very beautiful.
In Garrick Ohlsson’s recordings of the two Chopin piano concertos the CD transfer of the analogue stereo master seems to retain all the best elements of the mid-’70s sound, combining spaciousness with good focus and a natural perspective. Ohlsson’s performances are most impressive – poetic, with finely nuanced but unexaggerated rubato, an often sparkling bravura and never rambling in passagework. Maksymiuk’s accompaniments are fully supportive and have plenty of character. Most enjoyable.
Giulini’s 1962 Philharmonia New World Symphony was one of the more distinctive readings of the 1960s, even though it does not include the first movement exposition repeat. The Philharmonia’s playing is peerless. The opening of the Largo is gentle and touching, and Giulini’s phrasing is a model of finesse: the resulting refinement is a pleasure in itself. But there is a certain element of detachment here, though the concentration of the performance is in no doubt. Unfortunately, the coupling is ill-chosen. Kubelik’s Vienna Philharmonic account of Schubert’s Unfinished opens sotto voce, and although the orchestral playing itself is again very fine there is an element of routine, especially in the second movement, which tends to drag.
John Ogdon’s admirers will welcome his triptych of Franck, Grieg and Schumann back to the catalogue, but others will not find this one of the most rewarding examples of his pianism. As an artist he responded best to bigger challenges (witness his fine account of the Busoni Concerto, recently reissued on HMV Classics – reviewed last month); but in slighter works such as these, which depend on more gentle romantic feeling and charm, he could be less successful. This is perhaps surprising in the Franck Symphonic Variations, as Barbirolli was his accompanist; in the Grieg and Schumann the partnership with Berglund clearly did not work well, and the performances fail to take off.
Barbirolli’s Grieg collection is undoubtedly the pick of the bunch. Among British conductors he was second only to Beecham in the Peer Gynt music, and he has the advantage of Sheila Armstrong to sing the two lovely Solveig songs and Patricia Clark and the Ambrosian Singers to add colour to the ‘Arab Dance’. The Halle Orchestra are in splendid form both here and in the lovely Lyric Suite. The recording is first-class, both brilliant and atmospheric.
Kubelik’s Mozart programme, too, shows him and the Vienna Philharmonic on top form in both symphonies, the readings strong and concise, and both slow movements beautifully played. Pacing cannot be faulted and the finale of the Jupiter is most successful, even if (as was usual in the early LP era) the repeats are omitted. Eine kleine Nachtmusik is also quite elegantly done, if less distinctive. The 1960s recording sounds very fresh.
Maazel’s Mussorgsky/Ravel coupling has appeared previously on one of the two-disc Royal Classics conductor portraits (4/00), together with Gilels’s thrilling account of the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto and a racy Till Eulenspiegel – if you want these performances as well, the Royal double-CD is better value. But, with a superb, virtuoso response from the Philharmonia, these same Ravel performances have real flair, and Mussorgsky’s Pictures are vividly characterised by the New Philharmonia throughout, with a spectacular closing ‘Great Gate of Kiev’; so this single disc is recommendable, too.
Finally, a most attractive collection of ballet music (very well recorded): especially welcome are Fistoulari’s Ballet egyptien and the Weber Invitation to the Dance, here orchestrated rather charmingly (including a bassoon obbligato) by Weingartner. The Philharmonia present Roy Douglas’s superb arrangement of Les sylphides very beautifully, and Mackerras is both elegant and sparkling in the three items from Coppelia and quite Beechamesque in the charming Faust ballet. Incidentally, Richard Bonynge has suggested that it may have been Delibes, rather than Gounod, who wrote the latter suite when the opera was first heard in Paris. I wonder if that is true.'

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