Musorgsky • Ravel
Musorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; Ravel: La Valse
Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth
Harmonia Mundi HMM 905282 41.18 mins
Pictures at an Exhibition, most particularly in Ravel’s orchestration, is so ubiquitous and taken for granted as a colourful gallery of scenes and vignettes that its darker qualities are often overlooked: it was, after all, Musorgsky’s heartfelt memorial to a friend who died far too young. Having it paired here with Ravel’s macabre de-composition of the Viennese waltz, which the French composer began soon after the end of the First World War and completed just two years before orchestrating Pictures, reinforces the latter’s generally morbid and nightmarish character (qualities mitigated in Musorgsky’s original piano version by the astonishing virtuosity needed to pull it off).
Conductor François-Xavier Roth certainly foregrounds each work’s grotesque qualities. The slithering string portamento in ‘Gnomus’ is striking; yet more unusual and unnerving are the crescendos he draws from the strings’ icy-sounding sul ponticellotremolos in the middle section of ‘Baba-Yaga’. Roth has taken some pains to perform a version of Pictures faithful to Ravel’s final thoughts – rather unusually, since many conductors (including Abbado on DG) add or amend details to even the published score. Yet the differences are not so notable as to make this an ‘essential’ version, and some of Roth’s decisions are questionable. In Pictures the strings play with virtually no vibrato, although surely a more vocal quality, rather than glassy translucence, would be appropriate to Musorgsky. Even La valse, where vibrato is used, needs more schwung and attractive glitter to act as a foil to the malevolent horror which finally subsumes the work.