October 2007

Orchestrations by Sir Henry Wood: Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Pieces by Seven Other Composers
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Nicholas Braithwaite cond.
Lyrita SRCD.216
Format: CD
Released: 2007

by Richard Freed

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

Mussorgsky’s piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition is best known in Ravel’s stunning setting for orchestra, but Ravel, in 1922, was neither the first nor the last to act on the orchestral character implicit in this keyboard music -- he was simply the best at it. Some of the other orchestral versions are of interest in their own right; several have been recorded, and Leonard Slatkin has produced two different composite settings, drawn from about a dozen of them. The colorful British conductor Sir Henry Wood, an enthusiastic Russophile (and founder of London’s Promenade Concerts), introduced his version in 1915, and modestly withdrew it when Ravel’s came out. Now it appears in full in a fascinating collection of Wood’s various transcriptions, recorded in the early 1990s but apparently unissued until now.

Compared with Ravel's, Wood's version (which omits the "Promenades," except for the opening one) places less emphasis on subtlety, more on raw power and Russian bluntness. His other transcriptions focus similarly on straightforward exploitation of the coloring Wood preferred -- organ pedal, large bells and general bigness. His exuberantly virtuosic scoring of Bach’s D minor Toccata and Fugue, made a bit later than the famous Stokowski version, was initially ascribed to a fictional "Paul Klenovsky" to avoid the critics’ dismissal of a mere "conductor’s transcription." Wood did fess up, and Toscanini was among those who performed the piece. Wood’s treatment of Debussy’s Cathédrale engloutie, a memorial gesture just after the composer’s death, has held its own over the years, as have his transcriptions of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp minor and the Funeral March from Chopin’s Second Sonata. The other items here -- a virtually unknown Polish Dance by Xaver Scharwenka, a familiar Spanish Dance by Granados, Grieg’s Funeral March for Rikard Nordraak -- are all richly appealing, and the Pictures is meaty enough to be enjoyed in alternation with the Ravel version, though it presents no serious challenge to the Ravel’s status.

The recording quality is first-rate throughout, doing complete justice to Wood’s colorful scoring, and Lewis Foreman’s annotation is helpfully informative.