MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. RAVEL); Night on the Bare Mountain (orch. RIMSKY-KORSAKOV); Thwe Sorochinsky Fair: Introduction (orch. LIADOV); Khovantschina: Prelude; Dance of the Persian Slave Girls – Russian National Orchestra/Carlo Ponti – PentaTone MultiChannel SACD PTC 5186 332, 60:52 [Distrib. by Naxos] *** :
Except for the deft orchestration of the unfinished comic opera Sorochinsky Fair (based on Gogol, 1874) by Anatole Liadov, the repertory on this splendidly-mounted SACD (rec. 3/2008 in Studio 5, Moscow) is all-too-familiar, no matter the brilliant execution by the Russian National Orchestra by Carlo, Ponti, appointed (2001) Associate Conductor. The Liadov orchestration itself is likely more conservative–as are the emendations by Rimsky-Korsakov–than Moussorgsky himself would have utilized, his own ear daunted neither by the guttural sound of the Russian language nor by the harmonic discordances endemic to native folk music. Oboe, clarinet, and flute introduce a lovely melodic sequence more reminiscent of Rimsky-Korsakov’s City of Kitezh Suite than of the rough-hewn Night on the Bare Mountain (1867), originally conceived to rival Liszt’s Totentanz for piano and orchestra. The latter piece exacts some great colors from the Russian National Orchestra, including trumpet triplets right out of Liszt’s Mazeppa.
As for the ubiquitous Pictures (1874), it serves as a display piece for the RNO’s choirs, much in the manner that the Leningrad Philharmonic under Mravinsky represented a sonic world entirely its own. Ravel’s orchestration, conceived for Koussevitzky, allows the RNO’s woodwinds, especially the bassoon, to bask in florid curlicues of melody–as in The Old Castle–or deep, modal harmonies, as in Bydlo. Ponti takes the faster sections, like Limoges, Tuileries, and Baba Yaga, at a fierce clip, deliberately asking his ensemble to imitqate the Concertgebouw under Mengelbeerg, especially with the huge luftpausen in The Great Gate of Kiev, to which we ascend after a visit to Dante’s Catacombs. Whether to purchase yet another version of this warhorse might depend on the audiophile’s desire for the multichannel experience, which has the choir separation at colossal for brilliance and solo instrument articulation.
The two excerpts from Khovantschina (1876) had me thinking back to both Stokowski and Szell, respectively, for elegance of line and directness of attack. The Prelude has that lingering, inverted pedal in the strings from which color woodwinds evoke and lovely theme that mounts to Russian bells. The Dance of the Persian Slaves winds and grinds sensuously, the Rimsky-Korsakov orchestration pointing more than once to Scheherazade. Festive and shimmering, the piece hints at the Balakirev and Borodin scores that might have better served as an audiophile’s introduction to this virtuoso RNO ensemble and their enthusiastic conductor.