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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Ravel) [32.59]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Petrushka (1911 version) [34.29]
London Symphony Orchestra/Claudio Abbado
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, November 1981 (Mussorgsky); Walthamstow Town Hall, London, September 1980 (Stravinsky)
Presto CD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 423 9012 [67.38]

Record collectors of a certain vintage will recall with a frisson of horror the days of the old lists of “forthcoming deletions” that used to appear with monotonous regularity in the pages of review magazines in the 1960s and 1970s. These lists served as advanced warning of the imminent unavailability of sometimes well-established recordings, not all of which were guaranteed resurrection on the bargain labels issued by many of the major international companies. Once these deletions had been promulgated, local retailers would be unable to order or supply the relevant releases even to the most importunate of would-be purchasers (although some would consign the obsolete records to “deletions boxes”). Nowadays, thankfully, the situation is much more fluid. The advent of online retailers, with access to international supplies, will often mean that individual copies of CDs continue to be available long after they have supposedly ceased to figure in the catalogues of their issuing companies. In due course, if the CDs in question do not re-emerge in the form of reissues on bargain labels, supplies may gradually dry up and eventually the issue in question may figure only on second-hand lists often at grossly inflated prices. Only then is the CD likely to become totally unobtainable by a determined purchaser with money to spare. And the enterprise of Presto continues to make available new copies of issues that may have long ceased officially to figure in the catalogues. Such a disc is the one under consideration, a new pressing of a CD originally issued in the earliest days of the medium – and even then compiled from two pre-existing digital LPs.

Indeed, the compilation even now seems a strange one. Given the fact that both the recordings here feature the same orchestra and conductor, they were nonetheless recorded at different times in different venues; and neither of the featured works seem to be an inevitable bedfellow of the other, the only element in common being that both are orchestral showpieces by Russian composers (in one case orchestrated by a Frenchman) and that both were given their first performances in Paris, albeit a decade apart. A coupling that might have appeared desirable in the early days of CD, when suitable digital recordings were relatively scarce, now has the slight air of seeming vaguely quixotic.

Both performances also have an unfortunate air of blandness, odd in two such dramatically illustrative works. The playing throughout is excellent, with the most challenging passages delivered with real panache, as can be heard in the scintillating clarity of the evocation of the fair at the opening of Petrushka or the rushing whirlwind of the flight of the witch Baba Yaga introducing the Great Gate of Kiev in Pictures, both passages which can so easily become blurred in the excitement of live performances. Every note is precisely in its place, and this precision is a marvel in its own right. What is lacking, I rather fear, is dramatic engagement. In the Pictures the saxophone solo portraying the minstrel outside the old castle, in itself beautifully poised and played, lacks the essential element of the sorrowful lament which surely should enter into his serenade. In Petrushka the moment when the neck of the puppet is broken, a totally theatrical effect achieved by dropping a tambourine on the floor, goes by with hardly a ripple of excitement. Nothing is actually wrong anywhere – far from it – but the music fails to grip the listener by the throat in places where this really is desirable. It is in such places that the listener realises the very real advantages that accrue to live recordings as opposed to studio ones, with their dangers of too much perfection of detail at the expense of the larger picture. And it is this intangible element, I fear, that seems to be lacking in this recording – the presence of Abbado on the podium notwithstanding.

Nonetheless the instrumental performances provide an excellent representation of the two scores involved, and certainly would recommend themselves to a student of orchestration or composition following with a score, since every subtlety in the music is so clearly delineated. The engineering too is vastly superior to many later issues by this orchestra in the problematic acoustic of their own hall, perfectly judged in terms of balance and richness. Leslie Howard’s solo piano in Petrushka, for example, is superbly integrated into the whole orchestral sound. One would never credit that the recordings are some forty years old.

The booklet notes, on the other hand, leave something to be desired, although we are given separate essays in English, French, German and Italian which will certainly repay multilingual readers. But the track listings and movement titles are for some reason given in French only, which will leave Anglophones for example at something of a loss when attempting to decipher the scenario of Petrushka or even the precise nature of the hut which Mussorgsky is attempting to portray in his picture of Baba Yaga. The over-brief booklet notes don’t actually help to explain at these points. But, in days when all too many reissues dispense with booklet notes altogether, I don’t think that we should complain too vociferously.

For those attracted by the coupling and with recordings that still sound as fresh as paint after forty years, this issue remains very attractive. Thanks are due to Presto for making it available once again.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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