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Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition / Lucerne Festival Orchestra Brass Ensemble

Mussorgsky / Brass Ensemble Of Lucerne Festival
Release Date: 10/29/2013 
Label:  Accentus   Catalog #: 30296   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Modest Mussorgsky
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Lucerne Festival Orchestra Brass Ensemble
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

MUSSORGSKY Pictures at an Exhibition (arr. Howarth). A Night on Bald Mountain (arr. Tarkmann). Songs and Dances of Death (arr. Verhaert) Lutz Köhler, cond; Brass Ens of the Lucerne Festival O ACCENTUS 30296 (66:02)

I sometimes wonder (not that it keeps me awake at night) what Mussorgsky would have thought if he could have known during his lifetime Read more how popular his music would become. Would he have been less discouraged, and even perhaps less inclined to drinking to excess, had he known that history was going to overturn the criticism leveled by his colleagues against the supposed crudities in his music? Surely he would have been amazed, at the very least, to know in 1874 the number of arrangements, recordings, and performances that his tribute to Victor Hartmann, a mere century after it was written, would inspire. The CD under review presents us with brass transcriptions of three of the Russian master’s best-known works, all good arrangements, and performed with aplomb by the brass of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra.

First heard is Andreas Tarkmann’s arrangement of Night on Bald Mountain. Since Russian lacks both the definite and the indefinite article, the work may also be translated as A Night on Bald Mountain or The Night on Bald Mountain. Regardless, what one hears here is an arrangement of an arrangement. Tarkmann bases his score upon Rimsky-Korsakov’s rewriting of Mussorgsky’s original versions of the work. Rimsky’s emendations were so thorough that Night in its usually heard version owes as much to him as it does to Mussorgsky. Tarkmann’s score is effectively rendered: for instance, the quick triplet figures in the strings towards the beginning becomes a flutter tongue in his arrangement, serving to produce much the same effect. In the chromatic scale passage, arranged as such by Rimsky from Mussorgsky’s two original versions, one using a whole-tone and the other an octatonic scale, Tarkmann has removed an octave or so of the run, and somehow ends up in a different key at the end. This requires him to suddenly and unexpectedly modulate again in order to wind up in Rimsky’s closing key of D Major. Even though it’s well done, it is a bit unsettling to those who know the score well. The harp arpeggios at the end are also missed. They just don’t achieve the same effect when played by brass. But these are small things in relation to the general excellence of the arrangement.

Songs and Dances of Death is perhaps Mussorgsky’s greatest venture into the realm of song. The lugubrious subject presents death as it claims many sorts of victims, including children, warriors, a woman, and a man who experiences an idyllic summer vision as he lays dying, having wandered out in a drunken stupor into a blizzard. Consequently, the music is some of the darkest and most somber that the composer ever wrote. Originally written as a cycle for voice (usually a bass or baritone) and piano, Mussorgsky intended to orchestrate it, a project (among many) that he never realized. It was consequently orchestrated by Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov, each taking two of the movements. Years later, Shostakovich also made an orchestration, and liking the premise of the piece, expanded the subject into his 14th Symphony. Through much use of muting, pianissimo playing, low registers, and the like, arranger Steven Verhaert has maintained the somber mood of the original work very effectively. All of the drama of the original setting, whether in the more subtle undercurrents found in the first three songs, or more overtly in the final “Field Marshall,” is keenly felt, although it is impossible not to lose something by replacing a singer who can convey texts of songs with instruments that cannot produce any words at all.

Elgar Howarth’s arrangement of Pictures is the most popular brass arrangement among the several dozen that have been accomplished by various hands. Generally, brass arrangements of the complete work don’t attempt it with fewer than five players, and the upper end of the brass spectrum includes several arrangements for an entire brass band. Howarth’s arrangement falls towards the larger end of that spectrum of forces, calling as it does for two piccolo trumpets, three trumpets in E? or C, a flugelhorn in B?, four horns, three trombones, euphonium, two tubas, and percussion. There are good reasons for this arrangement’s popularity, foremost of which is its idiomatic writing for the brass. Simply put, it is to brass what Ravel is to the orchestra. However, Howarth hasn’t attempted to make a brass version out of Ravel’s orchestration, obvious from the very opening where he substitutes the more mellow flugelhorn for Ravel’s trumpet. The flugelhorn is also given the solo in “Il vecchio Castello” that the French master allotted to the alto saxophone. The “answer” to the plaintive melody comes in measure 15, and Howarth gives this to an off-stage trumpet, the sound of which in the present performance could not be more evocative and effective.

Like Ashkenazy, whose orchestral arrangement was written (to the best of my knowledge) several years after the Howarth, one hears the opening melody in “Byd?o” given to the four horns in unison, an improvement on Ravel’s tenor tuba, in my judgment. In the “Ballet of Unhatched Chicks,” Howarth creates a stunning effect by combining piccolo trumpets in flutter tongue with trills in the same instruments. Likewise, one hardly misses the ethereal tremolo in the violins in Ravel at the opening of “Con mortuis,” when Howarth substitutes trumpet tremolo with cup mutes combined with xylophone tremolo. The effect is every bit as mysterious and haunting as Ravel’s, and the Swiss players bring it off superbly, as they do virtually all the effects called for in this superb arrangement.

In a few places, including the final grand sweep of the concluding measures of “Baba-Yaga” that lead attacca into “Great Gate,” conductor Lutz Köhler has his piccolo trumpet players add the octave above what Howarth calls for in his score. It’s certainly closer to Mussorgsky’s original, and if you’ve got the players that can hit those notes, why not? Köhler’s pacing and weighting of lines through the work is masterful, no surprise, given that this is his third recording of the Howarth arrangement. Previously, he has made recordings with brass ensembles from the Jungen Deutschen Philharmonie and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony.

Only in the extremely demanding technical passages of “Limoges” did I hear any playing that was very slightly less than perfect in the present recording, although they execute it as well as Howarth does in his own reading with the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble on Argo. And speaking of comparisons, I find the sound on my Argo LP slightly fuller and richer than that on the Accentus Music CD under review, but the latter is quite acceptable, and I actually didn’t notice any deficiency in its sonics until I A-B’d it with the Argo.

This CD, then, will richly reward brass lovers, Mussorgsky enthusiasts, and a host of other listeners who just want to experience a fine recital.

FANFARE: David DeBoor Canfield
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Works on This Recording

Night on the Bare Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Lucerne Festival Orchestra Brass Ensemble
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1866; Russia 
Notes: Arranger: Andreas N. Tarkmann. 
Songs and dances of death by Modest Mussorgsky
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Lucerne Festival Orchestra Brass Ensemble
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1875-1877; Russia 
Notes: Arranger: Steven Verhaert. 
Pictures at an Exhibition (arrangements and orchestrations other than Ravel's) by Modest Mussorgsky
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Lucerne Festival Orchestra Brass Ensemble
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1874; Russia 
Notes: Arranger: Elgar Howarth. 

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