Musorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (piano version & orch. Ravel)

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COMPOSERS: Musorgsky
LABELS: Danacord
WORKS: Pictures at an Exhibition (piano version & orch. Ravel)
PERFORMER: Oleg Marshev (piano); Odense SO/Jan Wagner
CATALOGUE NO: DACOCD 656

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It seems like an obvious choice to couple Musorgsky’s original Pictures with one of the many orchestrations, but few companies have done so since Decca led the way with Ashkenazy playing the piano version and then conducting his own, rough-hewn arrangement.

Marshev and Wagner offer two very different interpretations – the pianist’s individual and capricious, the conductor’s steady and sober, making Ravel’s unsurpassable arrangement sound more fastidious than it sometimes is. Few soloists are masters of every Musorgskyan character (young Boris Giltburg struck me as one of the few to follow in Sviatoslav Richter’s magisterial footsteps). 

Rather too mannered for me are Marshev’s way with the Gnome’s halting gait, his not quite organic varying of the pulse before the ‘Old Castle’ and in the ‘Tuileries’, and the detached left-hand chords of the ‘Polish ox-cart’. On the other hand he’s thoughtful when the Promenader demands it and captures a whole range of trills imaginatively, especially in one of the liveliest ‘Ballets of the Unhatched Chicks’ on disc.

He paces the grand finale well, too, starting at a sensible tempo and rising to the full splendour of Russian orchestral pianism for the apotheosis.

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All this fantasy is bound to make Wagner and the Odensers seem rather earnest, starting with the suave military band that enters the gallery, rendering children, chicks and Limoges housewives unduly staid and turning lordly merchant Goldenberg into an inappropriately hesitant figure. The Ravelian detail, though, is always beautifully handled, with percussion in fine recorded focus. David Nice