MUSSORGSKY1 Pictures at an Exhibition. Night on Bald Mountain. Gopak. Une larme. Niania et moi. Scherzo. Souvenir d’enfance. TCHAIKOVSKY2 Symphony No. 6. Serenade in C. RACHMANINOFF3 Vespers • 1Brigitte Engerer (pn); 2Daniele Gatti,Read more3Paul Hillier (cond); 2Royal PO; 3Estonian PCCh • HARMONIA MUNDI HMX 2908385.87 (3CDs: 190:55 Text and Translation)
I’d guess that most of the reviewers for this magazine have had, from time to time, a CD come to them for review that causes them to wonder for what sort of an audience the disc is intended. The present set is certainly such an example for me. It combines one CD devoted to solo piano, one to orchestra music, and a third to a cappella choral music. All of the pieces are works from the standard repertory, and are likely already to be owned by collectors potentially interested in them. So there are two problems in marketing this set: First of all, there are relatively few collectors who buy music in all three of the genres presented here (choral collectors seem to be a subspecies in and of themselves, and collectors of other genres typically have little interest in choral music). Thus the prospective purchaser is likely to view this set as forcing him to buy at least one and very possibly two discs out of the three in which he has little or no interest. Second, if a collector does buy this set, where does he file it in his collection? It doesn’t work to do it by composer, since there are three represented. Nor by performer, of which there are likewise three. He can’t do it by genre either. Maybe the folks at Harmonia Mundi know something that I don’t, but I can say on the basis of my 36 years selling records that this set, for these reasons, has “dud” marked all over it.
My feeling about the dud potential of this set has nothing to do with the quality of the performances (and certainly not of the music), which are uniformly fine. It’s just my business sense kicking in, so you’ll forgive me, I trust, for that. So what of the performances at hand? Brigitte Engerer’s 1988 recording of Pictures at an Exhibition is about as much in the mainstream of performances of the work as Vladimir Sverdlov’s (reviewed in this same issue) is out of it. Her opening promenade is brisk, but not hurried; “Gnomus” is appropriately dramatic, with an effective breathless affrettando in measure 76; her “Il vecchio Castello” is as smooth as silk; “Byd?o” is well balanced, and appropriately plodding; and so on down the line. She makes everything work well, with only a few slips—the all-too-typical overly-cautious approach in “Limoges” and (more surprisingly) the same failing in “Baba-Yaga.” Here, her lack of sufficient accentuation in measures 17ff enervates the movement, and her rather soggy chords in the right hand in measures 25ff fail to propel the motion forward. Interestingly, she inserts a minor glissando in measure 186, as do a number of pianists, obviously influenced by Ravel’s orchestration. Despite these peccadilloes, this performance is good enough to suffice as the recording of Pictures in your collection if you lack one, and have been meaning to get one, and (ahem) don’t mind all of the other non-piano works in the anthology.
Likewise, her renditions of the other Mussorgsky pieces on the first CD come off well. Night on Bald Mountain is seldom heard in its piano version, mainly because it’s not Mussorgsky’s. Several arrangers have reduced the orchestra score to solo piano, and here it’s not quite clear from the notes, but seems to be a synthesis of two different arrangements, one by an unknown arranger, and the other by Konstantin Chernov (1865–1937). The arrangement works very well in Engerer’s hands, although some of the notes have been changed from Mussorgsky’s (well, I should say, Rimsky-Korsakov’s) “original,” and she generates plenty of excitement in this quintessentially exciting piece. The shorter character pieces also charm, as is their wont.
Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony is probably my favorite Russian Romantic symphony, and I am pleased to hear herein a fine reading by Daniele Gatti and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Between the performance and recorded sound, this is about as suave a performance as you’re likely to hear, even if it does not produce the last word in excitement. I’d be hard-pressed to think of another performance that better captures the yearning pathos and the Russian soul of the piece, though, and Gatti does bring his forces up to a peak of white-hot emotional intensity in the final movement. The same refinement heard in the symphony is on display in his reading of the Serenade for Strings. Crisp playing combined with a good pacing make this version competitive with the best I’ve heard (admittedly, not a lot of different recordings: This isn’t Pictures, after all).
From its opening low C in the basses, Paul Hillier’s recording of Rachmaninoff’s Vespers makes one realize that it is going to be something special. This should be no surprise, given Hillier’s reputation as one of the world’s leading choral conductors. My wife, a choral conductor herself, happened into my office as I was auditioning this, and her one-word review was “gorgeous!” The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, which I would assume contains mainly Estonians and not Russians, does a remarkable job in capturing the Slavic essence of the piece. Texts are provided in Russian, French, and English, and the recording captures an ambience akin to that heard in one of the great cathedrals of the Orthodox Church.
So, in short, there’s a lot to like in this set—the music, the performances, the recorded sound, and even the presentation. With better thought-out couplings, I could more easily and enthusiastically recommend it. As it is, I can do so only to those who have broad tastes in various genres of classical music, and have a small enough collection to be lacking suitable recordings of the warhorses included here. These performances will certainly provide much enjoyment, if you happen to find yourself among that select group.
Symphony no 6 in B minor, Op. 74 "Pathétique"by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky Conductor:
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic Written: 1893; Russia Venue: Watford Colosseum, London, England Length: 44 Minutes 27 Secs.
Serenade for Strings in C major, Op. 48by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky Conductor:
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic Written: 1880; Russia Venue: Watford Colosseum, London, England Length: 31 Minutes 42 Secs.
Vespers, Op. 37by Sergei Rachmaninov Performer:
Iris Oja (Alto),
Mati Turi (Tenor)
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Period: 20th Century Written: 1915; Russia Venue: Dome Church, Haapsalu, Estonia Length: 53 Minutes 56 Secs. Language: Russian
Featured Sound Samples
Vespers (Rachmaninov): IV. O gentle light
Pictures at an Exhibition (Mussorgsky): The Hut on Fowl's Legs "Baba Yaga"
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Good - but not great !!May 29, 2012By JOSEPH S. (COLORADO SPRINGS, CO)See All My Reviews"Vespers is a unique piece of music, pure Russian, that requires a strong bass section. This rendition is rather heavy on the soprano,but Rachmaninov stressed the need for the basso to hit the low b flat. It is pleasant listening, but after hearing the Russian Cultural Chorus do the Vespers, this is a let-down. The Night on Bald Mountain - my fault for not reading prior to purchase. I thought it wouuld be orchestral- alas - piano. I listened to it once, then filed it away. This piece needs an orchestra to do it justice."Report Abuse