WORKS: Pictures at an Exhibition; Songs and Dances of Death; A Night on Bare Mountain
PERFORMER: Ferruccio Furlanetto (bass); Mariinsky Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
CATALOGUE NO: MAR 0553 (hybrid CD/SACD)
With hordes of orchestral recordings of Pictures at an Exhibition on the market, there needs to be good reason to consider yet another one in Ravel’s ubiquitous, not very Musorgsky-ish, insistently French arrangement. To Gergiev’s and the Mariinsky Orchestra’s credit, there’s nothing of the over-familiar warhorse in their approach. The playing here is poised, uninflated, and vividly characterised. ‘The Old Castle’ features a saxophone solo that’s pleasingly vibrato-free; and powerful atmosphere is conjured (without hairy-chested exaggeration from the brass section) in Musorgsky’s depiction of the catacombs of Rome.
But the major appeal of this release is an exceptional interpretation of the Songs and Dances of Death by Ferruccio Furlanetto. His mellow-toned Italian bass, projected with superlative line and diction, offers a fine alternative to the heavy vocal artillery of Russian tradition. Shostakovich, who made these masterly orchestrations, always regretted that Musorgsky never added to the four settings of this darkly magnificent cycle; but at least we have these ones. (The booklet omits texts and translations of the poems: one despairs.) Gergiev also includes the original score of A Night on Bare Mountain – a startlingly radical statement even by Musorgky’s standards, let alone compared to Rimsky-Korsakov’s arrangement. But at least one can understand why Rimsky felt the need to make his trite and re-composed version: the original’s material is so starkly presented, and its scoring so jagged-edged, that no one felt up to performing it in the composer’s lifetime. Excellently clear recorded sound enhances a release of real and anti-routine quality.