Site review by ramesh October 30, 2006
|This excellently conceived and recorded disc is greater than the sum of its parts.
One of the signs of the alleged doldrums in classical music has been the reduction of recordings by the major orchestras, notably the great American ensembles, due to the cost of studio sessions. However, bands which would have rarely produced discs in the past have now taken advantage of the niches open to them. Orchestral standards haven risen internationally, which rather casts doubt on the classical doomsayers.
With the numerous recordings of Mussorgsky's 'Pictures' in its Ravel orchestration, even on SACD, one would have wondered how a new company would be able to promote its product in such a congested field, both in the audiophile and standard markets. For instance, of the super-orchestras, the Vienna Philharmonic has an SACD under Gergiev in 24 bit/96 kHz multichannel. Fritz Reiner's celebrated version with the Chicago Symphony has a DSD transfer of the 2 and 3 channel analogue tape which sounds better than virtually all CD recordings of this work made in the 1980s.
This Belgian company has eschewed the hi-fi spectacular packaging of these two SACDs, despite possessing genuine audiophile recording quality. Most versions of the Mussorgsky-Ravel orchestration are coupled with other Mussorgsky works, or are harnessed to a programme of orchestral warhorses. The Reiner disc mentioned was originally marketed as a hi-fi spectacular. There are surprisingly few discs of the Mussorgsky-Ravel coupled to Ravel works, although Giulini recorded such a programme for DGG. This is the first disc I have come across entirely of Ravel's orchestrations. It's amazing that this approach is so rare, if not unique.
There is scanty information on the recording. It has been mastered, but not recorded by Polyhymnia. It sounds like good PCM digital. In terms of the capability of the orchestra, and the style of the recording : a prominent stereo spread, a relatively lush but not over-reverberant acoustic with a full bottom end, including bass drum ; all this is reminiscent of Telarc productions with the Atlanta or Cincinnati orchestras. The track listings are messed up from the middle of the Schumann : each of the Mussorgsky tracks commences one number later than annotated.
All the works on this disc are arrangements of solo piano music. The Chabrier and Schumann orchestrations are new to me. The latter has recently been made available on a DVD conducted by Chailly, coupled with Argerich in the Schumann piano concerto.
Chabrier's 'Menuet Pompeux' has this composer's typically humorous, self-deprecating swagger. Those who enjoyed the Chabrier disc in the Mercury SACD series would find this equally welcome. It makes a fine overture for the rest of the programme.
The two Debussy works hail from early in his career, the 'Sarabande' later being reworked into his suite, 'Pour le Piano'. The 'Danse' is the one known as the 'Tarantelle Styrienne', to distinguish it from another of the same title. It sounds close to the Chabrier in terms of compositional style. This is an example of the excellent programme order of this SACD. The 'Sarabande' sounds Fauréan, although Ravel finds strains in the latter half of the work echoing the orchestral interludes in Debussy's opera. These orchestrations also exist in the 1970s Martinon set of the complete Debussy orchestral works. Comparisons show that Martinon's orchestra possessed a Gallic nasality in the woodwinds which isn't present in the Flemish orchestra. However, the modern recording far outstrips the EMI CDs in terms of recording finesse.
The last two works are the most substantial, and make a fascinating contrast. Most listeners have been introduced to the Mussorgsky via Ravel, whereas the Schumann would be uncharted territory as an arrangement. This juxtaposition of the unfamiliar before the familiar makes one appreciate the ingenuity and genius of Ravel's skills. Time and again, his utilisation of woodwinds or harp sounds entirely appropriate, yet the colours and glamour he brings to these eccentric piano pieces casts into shade the stodgier sections of the orchestral handling in Schumann's three concertos.
The Schumann isn't the complete 'Carnaval' but a nine minute extract. According to the notes, the Russian dancer Nijinsky commissioned Ravel to orchestrate the work in 1914, but Ravel got no further than four pieces : the opening, section 16 Valse allemande/ intermezzo- Paganini, and the finale. The outer movements will sound slow for those who know the original and expect the incisive piano chords. The central waltz and intermezzo sound for all the world like an extract from the Tchaikovsky ballets. With a poker face one could ask music lovers, 'which Tchaikovsky piece does this come from?', and sow rampant confusion.
The Mussorgsky 'Pictures' makes a fitting finale. In principle, as a head-to-head display of pure virtuosity, the Flemish players would be uncompetitive compared to the Chicago and Viennese orchestras. However, as the producer has promoted this as a vehicle for Ravel transcriptions, the playing field has been altered. In 'Gnomus', with its biting rhythms for the lower strings, the orchestra sounds tame compared to the whipcracks which Reiner manages to unleash. It isn't as exciting. On the other hand, in 'The Old Castle', the mellow saxophone is beautifully caught. The conductor is unafraid to encourage some delicious string portamenti. Similarly, the scrambling pace set in the 'Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells' is less energetic in this performance. On the positive side, the subtle details of the percussion are rendered in greater clarity than in any other CD or SACD of this work I have heard.
The strings sound a little lean in the lower registers, but not anorexic. However, the conductor and producer seem to have been able to swing this largely to their advantage. Inner detail which tends to get obscured by massed lower strings or full-bore brass is clearly audible. The earthiness and angularity of the Mussorgsky original is played down by insouciant charm and a balletic rather than brutal approach to rhythm. Nevertheless, the richness of the recording allows the fullness of the orchestra to emerge where it can in the closing minutes of the work, and the 'Great Gate of Kiev' has a Telarc-like splendour to the bass.
In summary, while this is no hi-fi Mussorgsky, it can still rattle the floorboards whilst functioning as an excellent alternative. A French Dandy in Kiev, to reexport George Gershwin. It would suit those who prefer non-audiophile demonstration discs. I've only played the Reiner SACD with the Mussorgsky once straight through, tiring of its endless parade of shock and awe. I've played this disc several times complete, because it is such a fascinating programme.