Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (March 21 [O.S. March 9], 1839 – March 28 [O.S. March 16], 1881), one of the Russian composers known as the Five, was an innovator of Russian music. He strove to achieve a uniquely Russian musical identity, often in deliberate defiance of the established conventions of Western music.
Many of his major works were inspired by Russian history, Russian folklore, and other nationalist themes, including the opera Boris Godunov, the orchestral tone poem Night on Bald Mountain, and the piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition. However, while Mussorgsky’s music can be vivid and nationalistic, it does not always glorify the powerful and is at times (such as in The Field-Marshal) antimilitaristic.
For many years Mussorgsky’s works were mainly known in versions revised or completed by other composers. Many of his most important compositions have recently come into their own in their original forms, and some of the original scores are now also available.
With scintillating virtuosity in Pictures and Abbado bringing out the Russian color in the gloriously sung choral works, there is nothing routine about anything here.
Abbado has recorded all this music before: Pictures for DG (3/89) and the rest for RCA with the LSO Chorus in 1981 (6/93). The latter was a very good record, and remains thoroughly worthwhile at mid price, but the new live DG recording is even more spectacular, especially in St John’s Night on the Bare Mountain, the original version of Night on the Bare Mountain. Arthur Jacobs, who here provides the illuminating notes, suggests that the American word ‘bald’ is more faithful to the Russian than our term, ‘bare’. Here it certainly brings vividly graphic orchestral playing. Abbado obviously relishes the odd grotesque spurts of colour from the woodwind, and the Mussorgskian ruggedness. The composer’s structural clumsiness is not shirked and the lack of the smooth continuity found in the Rimsky arrangement does not impede the sense of forward momentum; indeed at the close the Russian dance element is emphasized, rather than the sinister pictorialism. (Of course the luscious slow ending is not here at all–that was added by Rimsky.)
The choral pieces are gloriously sung and again Abbado brings out their Russian colour, especially in the glowing yet sinuous “Chorus of priestesses”. Joshua is made to seem a minor masterpiece with its lusty opening (hints of Borodin’s Polovtsians) and its touching central solo (“The amorite women weep”). This is most eloquently sung by Elena Zaremba and the theme is then movingly taken up first by the women of the chorus and then the men, before the exultant music returns. The performance of Pictures at an Exhibition, like the choral items, gains from the spacious ambience and sumptuous overall textures. It is not, perhaps, an electrifying performance, but it is dramatic in its contrasts and very beautifully played. The refinement and colour of the evocation, so characteristic of Abbado, is most touching in “The old castle”, while “Tuileries” is gently evoked with a flexibly fluid control of tempo. “Bydlo” opens and closes mournfully, yet reaches a strong, positive immediacy as it finally comes close. The chicks dance with dainty lightness; then the hugely weighty lower orchestral tutti and bleating trumpet response of “Samuel Goldenberg” demonstrate the extraordinary range of tone this great orchestra can command.
After the scintillating virtuosity of “Market Place at Limoges” the sonorous Berlin brass makes a tremendous impact in “Catacombe” and Abbado’s tonal and dynamic graduations are characteristically astute; then ‘following a ferociously rhythmic “Baba-jaga” he steadily builds his three-dimensional “Great Gate at Kiev”, losing none of the grandeur of the gentle contrasts of the intoned chorale, with the tam-tam splashes at the end satisfyingly finalizing the effect. A most enjoyable concert: there is nothing routine about anything here. (by Gramophone Magazin, February 1995)
Berliner Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Claudio Abbado
Elena Zaremba (vocals on 05.)
Prague Philharmonic Chorus (choir on 05.)
01. A Night On The Bare Mountain 12.43
02. The Destruction Of Sennacherib 6.00
03. Salammbô – Chorus Of Priestesses 5.10
04. Oedipus in Athens – Chorus Of People In The Temple 3.07
05. Joshua 5.12
Pictures At An Exhibition:
06. Promenade 1.48
07. Gnomus 2.20
08. Promenade 1.04
09. The Old Castle 4.21
10. Promenade 0.34
11. The Tuileries Gardens 1.11
12. Bydlo 2.51
13. Promenade 0.45
14. Ballet Of The Chickens In Their Shells 1.14
15. Samuel Goldenberg And Schmuyle 2.10
16. The Market-Place At Limoges 1.20
17. The Catacombs (Sepulchrum romanum) 2.01
18. Cum mortuis in lingua mortua 2.04
19. The Hut On Fowl’s Legs (Baba-Yaga) 3.28
20. The Great Gate Of Kiev 5.16
Written by Modest Mussorgsky, orchestrated by Maurice Ravel