Monday, December 22, 2008

The AllMusic Classical Editors’ Favorites of 2008

Reviewby Uncle Dave Lewis

It is a little surprising that Telarc decided to go with the Vadim Repin portrait of Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky for its recording of Paavo Järvi and the Cincinnati Symphonyin his best-known orchestral works. Painted as Mussorgsky lay dying in a St. Petersburg hospital, it captured the composer at his most dissolute and chaotic, but as it remains the most famous image of Mussorgsky among the limited amount of iconography left for him, perhaps its use was a foregone conclusion. It certainly does not reflect the vision of the music that's inside. This is Mussorgsky at its most pristine, cohesive, and well-tailored; a little like the photographic portrait, with his beard trimmed and waxed moustache turned up at its sides, that Mussorgsky might have preferred as the image we keep of him in our minds. Järvi opts for the standard Rimsky-Korsakov scores of Night on Bald Mountain and the prelude "Dawn on the Moscow River" from Khovantschina, but introduces a little twist inRavel's orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition in that the original French published edition of 1929 is consulted for correction of errors and specifics on phrasing and dynamics. A whole industry of activity has grown up around Mussorgsky's scores, not to mentionRimsky-Korsakov's and others' alleged meddling with them, resulting in a donnybrook that has raged pro and con among musicologists and performers alike for decades. Nevertheless, amid all of that confusion, no one else thought to go back and review the familiar Ravelscore, and there is every reason to. It has been a public domain score, at least in the United States, for decades. Practically every orchestra has a copy filled with markings and changes of various kinds even beyond errors stemming from the original prints themselves.

The differences are quite significant: one familiar error in the saxophone solo in the "Tulieries," which sticks out as a sore thumb in most recordings, simply becomes invisible, yet restores the passage to Ravel's intended transparency. This is but one example offered here; one hesitates to give away the many surprises here, particularly those in "The Old Castle." Although founded by German musicians in a still overwhelmingly German American city, the Cincinnati Symphony delivers a very beautiful "French orchestra" sound here; this owes to some extent from a long association with Erich Kunzel, who was an attentive student of Pierre Monteux, but Järvi has especially refined the French DNA in the orchestra. This really works well for Mussorgsky, as French orchestral tradition and the nineteenth century Russian nationalist school are joined at the hip. Telarc's recording quality is fabulous; timpani rumble ominously, the bass drum pulses rather than sounds and in the low string passages in "Samuel Goldberg and Schmuyle," you can feel the contact the bows make with their instruments. With the exception of listeners who will not tolerate anything other than warts and all Mussorgsky -- the Repin portrait embodied in the unedited form of his scores -- this recording of Mussorgsky's PicturesNight on Bald Mountain, and "Down on the Moscow River" should prove absolutely satisfactory, not to mention inspiring and emotionally moving, listening. It would be great to see this conductor/orchestra combination let loose on what remains of Mussorgsky's scant orchestral literature.

Concerning pre-eminent Russian nationalist composer Mussorgsky, the mid- to late twentieth century was an era typified by attempts to clean the barnacles off his musical hull. His work -- left incomplete both owing to his own reckless lifestyle and the zeal of a non-music reading cleaning lady tidying up in the wake of his passing -- had been through many editing hands with varying degrees of success, and there was a call to bringMussorgsky's music back to the textual purity of his manuscripts. So began the Pavel Lammedition, the David Lloyd-Jones editions of Boris Godunov, some conductors taking up St. John's Night on the Bare Mountain rather than Rimsky-Korsakov's edition entitled Night on Bald MountainShostakovich's editions of the other operas, and many other enterprising re-situations of Mussorgsky' oeuvre. Such an approach served Boris Godunov well, establishedSt. John's Night as quite a separate piece from Night on Bald Mountain, and introduced some positive sidelights to what had been a murky and unclear understanding ofMussorgsky and his work.

However, the proof is in the pudding. Russia was the only nation to adopt the 1869 and 1874 Boris over the Rimsky-Korsakov edition, which remained the standard in the West, as did most other Rimsky-Korsakov retreads of Mussorgsky. Going beyond Rimsky-Korsakovand Boris, one thing clear to all of the Mussorgsky editors over time was that once you start scraping away at the barnacles in Mussorgsky, what you find are more barnacles; in many cases, Mussorgsky simply requires editing and there's just no two ways around it. No one, however, prior to this Telarc recording Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition featuring Paavo Järvi, considered the possibility of cleaning the barnacles from the hull of Maurice Ravel's famous 1922 orchestration of Mussorgsky's piano suite.


Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition, Limoges Listen to an audio sample

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