Déjà Review: this review was first published in May 2003 and the recording is still available.
Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)
Night on the Bare Mountain (Rimsky-Korsakov version) [10:54]
Hopak from Sorochintsy Fair [1:42]
Golitsin’s Exile from Khovanshchina [5:10]
Night on the Bare Mountain (original version) [12:50]
Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Ravel) [32:48]
National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine/Theodore Kuchar
rec. 2001, Grand Concert Studio of the National Radio Company of Ukraine, Kiev
Naxos 8.555924 
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky was a member of the “mighty handful” of Russian composers who sought to give Russian music a truly nationalist character. Interestingly, of these five only one, Balakirev, was a professional musician – César Cui was an army officer, an engineer of fortifications, Borodin was a doctor and teacher of chemistry, Rimsky-Korsakov, a naval officer, whilst Mussorgsky, after leaving the army, spent his life as a government clerk.
As a young army officer, Mussorgsky had ambitions to become a musician and, though completely untrained, tried his hand at various compositions, eventually falling under the influence of Balakirev, and later, the hugely influential polymath, Vladimir Stasov, who was to become Mussorgsky’s first biographer. At first he was dismissed by Stasov as an idiot who was completely lacking in ideas. Balakirev concurred with this opinion for a number of years, but Mussorgsky persevered, and how lucky we are that he did. Who could imagine a musical landscape without Boris Godunov, Khovanshchina, The Songs and Dances of Death, Night on the Bare Mountain and Pictures at an Exhibition? Certainly, it is true to say that while Mussorgsky was underrated during his lifetime, his music today is far better known than that of either César Cui or the group’s founder, Balakirev.
Mussorgsky’s friends looked upon him as someone with genuine talent and almost revolutionary originality, but also as something of a bungler who couldn’t organise himself to bring all his innovative ideas to fruition. Thus it was that after his untimely death at the age of 42 from epilepsy brought on by alcoholism, composer friends like Rimsky-Korsakov sought to complete, and even in some cases to almost rewrite, several of his works. In short, they were attempting to cover up what they saw as his shortcomings. Doubtless these well-meaning people helped establish Mussorgsky’s reputation but for many years music lovers often believed that much of his contribution was due to his friends’ ‘assistance’. Today we look upon his output in a much more balanced and appreciative way.
This new release from Naxos of the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine is an excellent place to start to explore Mussorgky’s musical legacy. What interested me most was the opportunity to compare the two versions of “Night on the Bare Mountain”, and I made some surprising discoveries. Both versions are played with great panache and the orchestra’s enthusiasm for the music comes striding through, but I am now a champion of Mussorgsky’s original version over the more familiar one that Rimsky-Korsakov made after Mussorgsky’s death. This version is far more eerie than Rimsky-Korsakov’s more often played and recorded one. It has a much more raw and unrefined quality and thus seems far more able to evoke a witches’ sabbath than its more famous counterpart. Just compare the opening bars of each version to note how the original has a genuinely ghostly feel to it – something nasty is lurking in the woodshed and it’s coming out to play! Mussorgsky’s use of the drums is different to Rimky-Korsakov’s and the beat evokes an almost primaeval picture – more akin to Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”. I was reminded of Walt Disney’s “Fantasia” with fire and smoke pouring from volcanoes.
Rimsky-Korsakov said about several works that he was ‘touching them up to make them more understandable to the public’, and, as with “Khovanshchina”, that he had smoothed out what he considered to be its ‘uncouth’ qualities. But for me it is precisely these qualities that make the music exciting. ‘Sanitising’ them loses essential elements and thus diminishes their power.
Mussorgsky wrote “Pictures at an Exhibition” as a set of piano pieces to describe the works of his artist friend Viktor Hartman, who had recently died. It is interesting to note that none of Mussorgsky’s friends sought to do anything with this work; indeed Rimsky-Korsakov said that it was unworkable in any other medium. It was Ravel who took up the challenge and orchestrated it and it is this version that is presented here. It is beautifully played. Highlights for me include “The Old Castle”, which has just the right feeling of venerable antiquity and “Ballet of the Chickens in their Shells”, a truly delightful evocation of this picture depicting children’s costumes. “Samuel Goldberg and Schmuyle”, perfectly points up the stark contrast between the two old Jews, one rich and full of the self-importance and the other whose life was characterised by the misery of abject poverty. Finally, the “Great Gate of Kiev” is played in a way that shows pride in the band’s heritage.
The three other discs I have of this work are of Norman del Mar, conducting the London Philharmonic, Yan Pascal Tortelier with the BBC Philharmonic and Jeno Jando playing Mussorgsky’s original piano version. For me, neither of the other orchestras can match the Ukrainian orchestra’s commitment. They both seem to be playing in a very pedestrian fashion – there’s no involvement with the music. They play all the notes but impart none of the feeling of wonder this work evokes and it is playing like this that makes such a well-known piece seem hackneyed. Listening to Jando’s playing of the piano version is fascinating and it is remarkable how Mussorgsky managed to make his piano writing sound orchestral. Normally, I am not a great fan of transcriptions – I feel that it is a kind of betrayal of the composer that another believes they have a right to re-score someone else’s work. I always felt this with Rudolf Barshai’s rendering of Shostakovich’s 8th string quartet into a ‘chamber symphony’. It adds nothing to the music. If you only knew it in that version you might very well have good reason to admire it, but once you’ve heard the original…. Having said that, I have to say that I can’t imagine being without Ravel’s orchestral version of ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’. It is a brilliant example of the magic that a great orchestrator can work. It is so full of colour that it really brings the pictures to life.
Two fillers are included. The “Hopak” from “Sorochintsy Fair” packs incredible vitality into its 1:42 minutes playing time and makes you eager to see the whole opera, whilst “Golitsin’s Exile” from “Khovanshchina” is suitably mournful in its presentation.
To sum up then I can think of no other disc of these works I would rather have than this new Naxos one. As always the price is enough to encourage everyone to have it on their shelves, whether as a first copy or joining others readers may already have.
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