Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Ravel) [32:12]
Night on Bald Mountain [11:22]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Waltz from Swan Lake [7:00]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Gustavo Dudamel
rec. April 2016, Musikverein, Grosser Saal, Vienna
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 6297 [50:51]

A mere fifty minutes’ worth from Dudamel and the VPO here; should we quibble? Well yes; there is plenty of room for another substantial work in place of the two attractive but lightweight fillers. So nuls points for DG on that basis. And while we’re at it, another annoyance; this version of ‘Pictures’ is of course the one orchestrated by Ravel, easily the best available. Mussorgsky never orchestrated the work himself, so it’s absolutely vital that this is made clear in the labelling. Sadly, you have to look through the small print inside the booklet to find any mention of the French composer’s name. That’s not just careless, it’s downright unethical.

But what about the performances? We have come to expect pretty sensational stuff from Dudamel – his Mahler 7 last year was, for me, revelatory. His ‘Pictures’, while enjoyable and vivid, don’t quite come up to that standard. It may have been his relationship with the orchestra, but there is a lack of charm and playfulness in the lighter numbers. The penultimate picture, ‘The Hut on Chicken’s Legs (Baba-Yaga) is just too slow. Mussorgsky’s indication is Allegro con brio, feroce, and the ponderous tempo rules out any true ferocity. That same heaviness continues into the finale, ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’, where the magnificence of the brass chorale is undermined by the clumsy phrasing of the melody. On the other hand, the orchestral playing (bassoon and alto saxophone) is exquisite in ‘The Old Castle’, and the powerful portrait of the two Jews, ‘Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle’ is superbly done. So not a ‘vintage’ Pictures, but worth hearing nonetheless. ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ (I much prefer the English title ‘Night on the Bare Mountain’) is exciting, but the peaceful coda is spoilt by some underwhelming solos from clarinet and flute, with even some dodgy tuning – not what we expect from the VPO. Tchaikovsky’s wonderful waltz from ‘Swan Lake’ completes the disc with a flourish.

A slightly disappointing disc then, despite the excellent sound quality but for those who get beyond Dudamel’s portentous (to say the least) statement reproduced on the back cover of the disc, there is much to admire and enjoy. However, it doesn’t displace those Golden Oldies of Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra on Sony, or indeed Reiner and the Chicago forces on RCA. Recent recordings are, surprisingly, relatively few and far between; but Theodore Kuchar’s reading with the Ukraine Philharmonic on Naxos conveys the spirit of the whole work brilliantly, and has the added bonus of two versions of ‘Night on the Bare Mountain’ – Rimsky’s, as on the present disc, and the startling original.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Previous review: Dan Morgan

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