MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition; Songs and Dances of Death; The Nursery – All orchestrated by Peter Breiner – New Zealand Sym. Orch./ Peter Breiner – Naxos Pure Audio Blu-ray NBD0036, 78:26 [Distr. by Naxos] (11/19/13) *****:
The famous and over-played Pictures at an Exhibition was originally composed by Modest Mussorgsky as a translation in piano music of the paintings of the composer’s friend Victor Hartmann. The pieces have been orchestrated by others, of which the best known is Maurice Ravel’s. The Slovak pianist, composer and conductor Peter Breiner (who now lives in NYC) has created his own version, which sounds quite different from Ravel’s. (His Naxos CD Janacek Operatic Suites was one of the Chicago Tribune’s Top Classical CDs of 2009.)
A variety of instrumental combinations are heard in the score, which sounds more to my ears as a very good movie soundtrack than an old-fashioned orchestration. There is plenty of percussion in some movements, and a spectacular big finish on the “Great Gate of Kiev” ending movement. Bettering even Ravel’s version, a large orchestra is called for here, amounting to 104 musicians. While this won’t replace some of the outstanding recordings of the Pictures it will stand on its own as a fascinating alternate version.
Breiner’s nearly 19-minute orchestration of the Songs and Dances of Death is a godsend for those of us who prefer the instrumental to the vocal. It is a fascinating and exciting orchestration of this vocal music which stands alone as if it were a brand new orchestral work from Mussorgsky just discovered somewhere. I always thought the original song cycle was a bit macabre as it was, and this transcription is just perfect. The Nursery is also interesting to have in a strictly instrumental version, but not as exciting as the Songs and Dances. There is a detailed booklet of notes inside the album. Both the multichannel 5.1 and stereo tracks are 96K/24-bit and clearly a cut above any CD versions.