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Mussorgsky: Pictures Of An Exhibition; Song & Dances Of Death

Mussorgsky / Ussr So / Svetlanov
Release Date: 09/28/2010 
Label:  Regis   Catalog #: 1352   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Modest Mussorgsky
Performer:  Irina Arkhipova
Conductor:  Yevgeny Svetlanov
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 11 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

MUSSORGSKY-RAVEL Pictures at an Exhibition. MUSSORGSKY-SHOSTAKOVICH Songs and Dances of Death 1. MUSSORGSKY Triumphal March. MUSSORGSKY-RIMSKY-KORSAKOV Night on Bald Mountain Yevgeny Svetlanov, cond; 1 Irina Arkhipova (mez); USSR SO REGIS RRC1352 (71:16) Read more />

Yegeny Svetlanov (1928–2002) was one of those musicians who managed to gain, as far as collectors go, his 15 minutes of fame. For many years as a record dealer, I had difficulty in selling his recordings at any price. Then at some point in the 1990s, someone must have published a favorable article in Japan, and the Japanese market suddenly woke up to him, causing his recordings to skyrocket in price. A more muted interest in Svetlanov in other countries followed, but by the middle of the first decade of the present century, interest everywhere had waned almost back to the status quo ante . I suspect that the precipitous rise and decline of this conductor’s fortunes as far as collectors’ interest was concerned lay not so much in a critical reassessment of Svetlanov’s gifts or lack thereof, but in the fact that most of his recordings were rather easy to obtain on dealers’ lists, and once the demand was sated, it slacked off rapidly. Svetlanov managed to gain and maintain favor with Communist Party apparatchiks, and seemingly was given carte blanche to record just about anything he wanted. I can remember being particularly impressed with his two-disc LP set of the orchestral music of Sergei Liapunov. Hearing it in Svetlanov’s hands, I kept asking myself, “Where has this music been all of these years!” Svetlanov had his faults, as Barry Brenesal and Peter J. Rabinowitz cogently discuss in Fanfare 28:1 and 33:4, respectively, but I believe that his musicianship puts him rather much above the “party hack” status often accorded him.

The compilers of this Regis release have created a pastiche of his selected Mussorgsky recordings, two from the studio (1963 and 1974) and two live performances from a Mussorgsky sesquicentennial concert given in 1989. These latter were released in that same year on an MCA CD containing the entire concert. Not surprisingly, the sonics of recordings made in varying venues over a period of 26 years are not particularly consistent, but everything is quite listenable.

At least three Svetlanov-led commercial recordings exist of Pictures at an Exhibition , the earliest dating from 1974, originally released on (LP) Melodiya CM 05725-28. The same 1989 concert that provided the present issue’s Songs & Dances of Death and Triumphal March also included a Pictures, and there is a further very late (1999) live performance on the BBC Legends label with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. I believe the recordings reviewed by Brenesal and Rabinowitz are both of the 1974 studio session, but not having the CD issues that they reviewed in hand, I cannot be sure. One thing that is clear in any comparison of Svetlanov’s 1974 reading of this work with his later ones is that he rather thoroughly rethought his conception of the piece, invariably in the direction of faster tempi. In the earlier reading, for instance, he plays the opening promenade at quarter = ca.84. By 1989, however, he had increased the tempo to quarter = 126, one of the faster openings that I’ve encountered (his 1999 BBC recording slows the movement down by a mere three seconds). It’s right up there with Abendroth’s mad dash through the gallery. Similarly, “Il vecchio Castello” loses more than a minute of its duration in the intervening 15 years. Svetlanov’s approach to Pictures in this 1974 recording is not particularly innovative, and adheres quite closely to well-established performance practice of the Ravel orchestration. This is not to say that there are not some very effective touches in his rendition of the work. In “Il vecchio Castello” one hears as beautifully rendered a saxophone solo, well supported by the accompanying instruments, as anywhere. “Tuilleries” is deftly executed, as is “Ballet of Unhatched Chicks,” rubati in the middle section of the former well suggesting the scolding of the nannies. The beginning of “Catacombs” is cataclysmically frightening, even if the tone of the brass is a bit rough, and the pianissimo chorale section of the “Great Gate” is played senza vibrato to stunning effect by the woodwinds. The performance is not without flaws, however. The brass introduction to the first promenade is not perfectly in tune, and there is some ensemble imprecision in “Gnomus.” I also find the opening of “Goldenberg and Schmuÿle” to lack punch and pomposity. Overall, this is a good solid performance of Pictures, but if you require perfection, stick with Reiner/CSO on RCA, or Cantelli in his 1953 reading with the NYP on Guild, among others.

In the Regis incarnation of the 1989 live performances of Songs and Dances of Death and Triumphal March, I found much more spaciousness and depth in the recorded sound than on the original MCA CD. Songs is superbly sung by Irina Arkhipova, a Russian mezzo of whom I’ve always been very fond. Here, the singer was 64, but there is very little—perhaps a note here and there—that betrays her age in this performance, and the passion and drama that she brings to the text is riveting. Unlike Svetlanov, Arkhipova never seems to have gotten her 15 minutes among collectors, and I don’t understand why. Her voice has a dark, rich warmth that seems particularly well suited to the Russian literature. Her recording of Songs won’t make me give up my recording with Boris Christoff and Georges Tzipine (nothing would), but it’s definitely a keeper, especially given the fine orchestration by Shostakovich.

Svetlanov’s recording of Night on Bald Mountain is the earliest (1963) recording of the pieces on this CD, and it is also the best performance on the CD, and arguably the best reading of this work I’ve ever heard (and I’m not just now inclined to argue the point with myself). This hair-raising performance demonstrating virtuoso playing by the USSR Symphony Orchestra will keep you on the edge of your seat as Svetlanov pushes his forces to superhuman extremes of tempi at climactic points. It alone is worth the price of the CD. Recommended, then, as an important document of the Russian musical tradition.

FANFARE: David DeBoor Canfield
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Works on This Recording

Pictures at an Exhibition for Orchestra (orchestrated by Ravel) by Modest Mussorgsky
Conductor:  Yevgeny Svetlanov
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1874/1922; Russia 
Date of Recording: 1974 
Length: 26 Minutes 12 Secs. 
Songs and dances of death by Modest Mussorgsky
Performer:  Irina Arkhipova ()
Conductor:  Yevgeny Svetlanov
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1875-1877; Russia 
Date of Recording: 1989 
Length: 18 Minutes 27 Secs. 
The capture of Kars by Modest Mussorgsky
Conductor:  Yevgeny Svetlanov
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1880; Russia 
Date of Recording: 1989 
Length: 5 Minutes 21 Secs. 
Night on the Bare Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky
Conductor:  Yevgeny Svetlanov
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1866; Russia 
Date of Recording: 1963 
Length: 11 Minutes 0 Secs. 

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