Notes and Editorial Reviews
Pictures at an Exhibition.
Le Tombeau de Couperin
Phil.harmonie 06001 (59:47)
The reader of this review might amuse himself by guessing how many orchestrations and arrangements exist of Mussorgsky’s piano suite,
Pictures at an Exhibition.
Go ahead—take a wild guess! Well, this arrangement by Wolfgang Renz makes a total of 422 that are known to me
(albeit, not all of them treat the complete work), and I am quite certain that there are at least a few dozen more that I have yet to discover in my attempt to collect every recording of every arrangement of this work. The number of recordings of this superfluity of arrangements,
recordings of the original piano version, presently totals nearly 750. Not surprisingly, more than a third of those are of the Ravel version.
“Well then,” you ask, “why do we need yet another arrangement!?” Once you hear this superb production by the Ensemble Berlin, the question will answer itself. Drawn from the ranks of the Berlin Philharmonic, the 11 members of Ensemble Berlin have been performing original works and arrangements of the classical repertoire since 1999, and have gained an ever-expanding and enthusiastic circle of devotees. The makeup of the group combines a woodwind quintet with a string sextet (with two each of violins and violas), large enough to produce a swirl of instrumental colors, but small enough to maintain the ambience of chamber music. The precision and musicality of this group belies the fact that it apparently plays without a conductor: Ensemble Berlin is, in a word, terrific.
Wolfgang Renz, who seems to be the house arranger for the ensemble, clearly knows what he is doing. His orchestration of
Le Tombeau de Couperin
preserves the clearly defined lines and
joie de vivre
of Ravel’s backward glance to the Baroque era and its dance forms. Even considering Ravel’s masterly orchestration of a work he originally conceived for piano, Renz’s transcription leaves nothing to be desired, and can be fully enjoyed on its own merits. But Renz one-ups Ravel in that he orchestrates all six movements of the original piano suite, including the fugue and toccata that Ravel omitted. Hearing Renz’s version, one wonders why Ravel eschewed these two movements in his own orchestral version. They work marvelously well clothed in this garb.
In the case of
there have been, not surprisingly, other hands that have set this work for chamber ensemble. Most striking of these is the brilliant version by Chinese-Australian composer Julian Yu, who adds trumpet, trombone, percussion, harp, and piano to the forces used by Renz. Yu’s wild and imaginative arrangement simply must be heard to be believed. The same might be said (although not in as positive a connotation) about the over-the-top version by Richard Marsella, who goes by the name of Friendly Rich. More conservative are the chamber versions by Clarice Assad, a particularly fine arrangement for strings that adds piano and percussion; Atar Arad, whose version for string orchestra was premiered early in 2010; and Jean-Pierre Arnaud, author of a version for chamber ensemble similar in its makeup to that of Ensemble Berlin.
Renz’s arrangement of
falls on the conservative end of the spectrum, but it is very well crafted, and full of fine effects and contrasts. A few instances of many that might be cited are his interplay in the opening Promenade between solo clarinet and strings, the plaintive aura created by his use of the English horn (also used by Stokowski in place of Ravel’s alto saxophone) in “Il vecchio Castello,” the utterly delightful “Ballet of Chicks,” and the string quartet
in the chorale sections of the “Great Gate of Kiev.”
Renz miscalculates only in two places in his arrangement: In measure 25 of “Tuileries,” he changes Mussorgsky’s harmony to match that in the opening measure of the movement. This doesn’t work, because that particular sonority does not flow convincingly to the following measure, and being now identical to the harmony in measure 27 (likewise identical to the opening sonority), makes the latter seem redundant. Likewise, in the fourth Promenade, he incomprehensibly changes the melody in measure 8. Given the fact that the Promenade melody is a kind of
in this work, ultimately incorporated into the pictures themselves, this emendation seems all the more inexplicable. In any case, neither does it work. Both of these, in fact, may simply be mistakes in the arrangement.
The only other
that I would mention for the listener who has grown up hearing
in its orchestration by Ravel (or Stokowski, or Ashkenazy, or whomever) is that he might miss the grandeur and powerful climaxes that Ravel and other orchestrators are able to summon through the use of a full orchestra. Despite these minor quibbles, this CD is highly recommended.
FANFARE: David DeBoor Canfield
Works on This Recording
Le tombeau de Couperin by Maurice Ravel
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1914-1917; orch. 191; France
Venue: Studio 2, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Munich
Length: 24 Minutes 2 Secs.
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