The Ravel orchestration of Modeste Mussorgskys 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 Naoumoffs arrangement of "Il Vechhio Catello," actually add music to what is already there. Slatkins musical patchwork quilt works very well and makes for an enjoyable and enlightening listen, either one section at a time or in toto. Slatkins 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 Gamleys 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.
Järvis filler pieces are fairly pedestrian. It surely would have been more interesting to have Mussorgskys 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 Liszts first piano concerto and concludes with a sonorous and romantic Hollywood-esque version of "The Star-Spangled Banner," arranged by Rob Mathes.
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