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Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 2; Mussorgsky: Night On Bare Mountain; Pictures At An Exhibition

Tchaikovsky / Mussorgsky / Bso / Karabits
Release Date: 12/13/2011 
Label:  Onyx   Catalog #: 4074   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Peter Ilyich TchaikovskyModest Mussorgsky
Conductor:  Kirill Karabits
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 22 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

MUSSORGSKY-RAVEL Pictures at an Exhibition. MUSSORGSKY Night on Bald Mountain (original version). TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 2, “Little Russian” Kirill Karabits, cond; Bournemouth SO ONYX 4074 (81:55)

Kirill Karabits was appointed principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra for the 2009–10 season while still Read more in his early 30s. The present concert is centered on his Ukrainian nationality, even though it has no works by actual Ukrainian composers. “Little Russia” was an early name for Ukraine, Mussorgsky’s Pictures has its “Great Gate of Kiev,” and his Night on Bald Mountain refers to an actual location near Kiev as well.

Tchaikovsky’s “Little Russian” Symphony has long been my favorite among his three early works in the genre. Even though its subtitle was added by the critic Nikolai Kashkin, somehow its folk-inspired melodies and the mournful atmosphere of its opening movement evoke Ukraine to me as does no other musical work. Karabits clearly knows the measure of the piece, bringing out its every subtlety. His Andantino marziale is perfectly paced, and he even makes the somewhat overblown finale cohere, a bit of a challenge for any conductor. He draws a sound from the brass that borders on Slavic, but minus the shrill timbre that characterizes some Russian brass sections. I no longer have the Bernstein and Doráti recordings that I cut my teeth on in this work, but according to my recollection, Karabits’s reading compares very favorably to theirs. It has the added bonus of superb sonics and orchestral balances.

For those who know only Rimsky-Korsakov’s substantial rewriting of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, hearing this recording of the original score will be quite a revelation for the listener. Actually, there are several so-called “original” versions, including a later one that Mussorgsky incorporated into his opera Sorotchinsky Fair. Regardless of which of these should be considered top contenders for the term “original” (should Mussorgsky’s first or final thoughts on the piece get the appellation?), every one of them evinces an originality several orders of magnitude above Rimsky’s tamed-down version of the piece. Mussorgsky’s whole-tone scale (or a variant of the octatonic scale, depending on which original version one hears) was changed to a chromatic scale in Rimsky’s version, which also substitutes a pianissimo ending for Mussorgsky’s original loud one. There is actually a lot of music in the work that Rimsky simply removed, including a couple of really catchy melodies, and his orchestration is purely his own, with little resemblance to what Mussorgsky wrote. Christoph von Dohnányi has also recorded this same original version with the Cleveland Orchestra. Both his and the Karabits under review are fine renditions, with Dohnányi gaining a slight advantage in the level of terror evoked.

Karabits’s approach to Pictures is well within the established performance practice of the Ravel version of the work. His is a refined and polished performance, with careful attention to detail (my practice in all the reviews I write of this work is to follow the recording with the appropriate score). The pacing is well conceived, and all of the lines are clearly articulated. There is elegant solo work by members of the orchestra—the saxophone in “Il vecchio Castello,” the tuba in “Byd?o,” the trumpet in “Goldenberg”—and the tempi are generally on the brisk side (“Limoges” gets one of the quicker readings I’ve encountered). The tremolo string entrance in “Cum mortuis” is virtually inaudible, producing exactly the right backdrop for the entrance of the winds. The only place where I feel that Karabits miscalculates is the bassoon entrance in measure 11 of “Goldenberg,” where it is a little too prominent. The reading generally ranks up there with the best I’ve heard, even though there are many fine renditions of this warhorse.

All in all, this disc is well worth picking up if the repertory appeals to you. The oddity of the lot is the original version of Night. If Karabits had seen fit to record also the seldom-heard but very worthwhile original version of the Tchaikovsky Second (recorded only, as far as I know, by Geoffrey Simon on Chandos), and one of the lesser-heard orchestrations of Pictures, I might have put this CD into the must-own category. As it is, my recommendation is tempered only by the ubiquity of the repertory.

FANFARE: David DeBoor Canfield


It takes a bit of thinking to work out the connection between the works on this disc. But the answer is: the Ukraine. Onyx don't give artist bios in their liner-notes, so it helps if you already know that Karabits is Ukrainian. The Little Russia of Tchaikovsky's symphony is the Ukraine. The Bare Mountain on which Mussorgsky spends a night is, it turns out, a real place in the Ukraine. And Pictures at an Exhibition – well, its the finale obviously.

Another startling connection between Tchaikovsky 2 and Pictures is the opening of their respective finales, which for about eight bars sound almost identical. That comes as quite a surprise when you think about how different Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky were as artists, and the ground between them certainly opens up as the two movements progress. Even so, they were written within just a few years of each other, so some kind of cross-influence can at least be suggested.

Even though the Second is among the least recorded of Tchaikovsky's symphonies, there is still stiff competition from a wide variety of contenders. Coincidentally (I think), one of the most impressive recordings on the market is the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra's previous recording, under Andrew Litton from the early 1990s. Then, as now, the piece really worked to the orchestra's strengths. They have had a succession of Russian or Russia-obsessed conductors over the years who have nurtured a real sense of Slavic spirit, especially in their readings of Tchaikovsky’s more folksy works.

Karabits takes a slightly more laid-back approach than Litton, going more for atmosphere than drive. This works very well in the first two movements, although the Scherzo is a bit flaccid. Tempos in this third movement are on the slow side, and there is little in the way of drive from the accents or dynamics. Otherwise this is a fine reading. There are one or two problems of tuning and ensemble here and there, but the soloists redeem all, especially the lead horn and bassoon in the first movement.

The original version of A Night on Bare Mountain has only recently come to wide attention. The idea of finding it on a populist programme like this even ten years ago would have been unthinkable. One reason for that is that it is quite difficult to pull off. It is more congested than Rimsky's revision, with lots of overlaps between the sections. But Karabits is able to make it work. The orchestra is on excellent form here, and all those vital details come through. Able to rely on his forces, he takes the piece at a driving pace, exaggerates contrasts, and generally just gives it everything. The three works on the disc are all played well, but this is the standout performance. It is one of the few recordings of the original version that don't make you wish you were hearing the revision.

Pictures at an Exhibition gets a similarly dramatic reading. Again, Karabits really stresses the contrasts of dynamics. His tempos are moderate, but never dull. There is a lot of very legato playing, which sometimes threatens the momentum. In the opening Promenade for example, the trumpet solo really leans on the slurs, and when the full string section enters, it is like a wall of sound, with little apparent articulation or phrasing. Again, the orchestra's fine soloists - none of them named, sadly - elevate a worthy performance into a satisfying and worthwhile one.

All round this is an enjoyable recording, with some fine playing and interesting interpretive ideas. Whatever the Ukrainian links, the coupling still feels random though. Much as I love both Mussorgsky works, I'd far rather have heard Karabits' take on Tchaikovsky's First Symphony. It is to be hoped that they're saving that one for next time.

-- Gavin Dixon, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 2 in C minor, Op. 17 "Little Russian" by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Conductor:  Kirill Karabits
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: Russia 
Venue:  The Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset 
Length: 35 Minutes 33 Secs. 
Night on the Bare Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky
Conductor:  Kirill Karabits
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1866; Russia 
Venue:  The Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset 
Length: 13 Minutes 21 Secs. 
Pictures at an Exhibition for Orchestra (orchestrated by Ravel) by Modest Mussorgsky
Conductor:  Kirill Karabits
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1874/1922; Russia 
Venue:  The Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset 
Length: 29 Minutes 30 Secs. 

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