November 2008

Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition; Liszt - Piano Concerto No. 1; Francis Scott Key and John Stafford Smith - The Star-Spangled Banner
Peng Peng, piano; Nashville Symphony Orchestra and Chorus; Leonard Slatkin, conductor
Naxos 8.570716
Format: CD
Released: 2008
Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition; A Night on Bald Mountain; Prelude to Khovanshchina
Cincinnati Symphony, Paavo Järvi, conductor
Telarc SACD-60705
Format: Hybrid Multichannel SACD
Released: 2008

Musical Performance ***
Recording Quality ***
Overall Enjoyment ***

by Rad Bennett

The Ravel orchestration of Modeste Mussorgsky’s lengthy piece for piano is one of the best-known compositions in the orchestral repertory. It is performed regularly and it is rare for a year or two to go by without a new recording of it. Though the Ravel version is an admitted masterpiece, many others have had a go at orchestrating the original. On this Naxos disc, Leonard Slatkin has taken a novel approach in picking a different arrangement for each movement of the piece. Some of these are very straightforward orchestrations, while others, such as Emile Naoumoff’s arrangement of "Il Vechhio Catello," actually add music to what is already there. Slatkin’s musical patchwork quilt works very well and makes for an enjoyable and enlightening listen, either one section at a time or in toto. Slatkin’s performance is attentive, attractive, and persuasive. The recorded sound is a bit boomy and bass heavy but very listenable, and the balance with the chorus in Douglay Gamley’s arrangement of "The Bogatyr Gate at Kiev" is admirable.

On Telarc, Paavo Järvi sticks to the Ravel orchestration and gives a curiously detached reading. One expects fire and involvement from this young conductor, but this Pictures never takes off. Everything is correct, all the notes are in the right place, but the overall result is fairly dull. Järvi is not helped by a recording that is way off the mark for Telarc. The bass has impact but not enough reverb, the cymbals are mushy, and when the brass blazes out in the finale, the rest of the orchestra just seems to go away.

Järvi’s filler pieces are fairly pedestrian. It surely would have been more interesting to have Mussorgsky’s original orchestration for Night on Bald Mountain rather than the often-recorded "refinement" by Rimsky-Korsakov. For more exciting extras, Slatkin teams with 16-year old pianist Peng Peng for a sparkling reading of Liszt’s first piano concerto and concludes with a sonorous and romantic Hollywood-esque version of "The Star-Spangled Banner," arranged by Rob Mathes.