Philippe Jordan conducts Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (arr. Ravel) Prokofiev Symphony No. 1 (Classical)

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COMPOSERS: Musorgsky,Prokofiev
ALBUM TITLE: Musorgsky * Prokofiev
WORKS: Musorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition (arr. Ravel); Prokofiev Symphony No. 1 (Classical)
PERFORMER: Orchestra de l’Opéra de Paris/ Philippe Jordan
CATALOGUE NO: 0190295877910

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Given the grandiose finale of Musorgsky’s Pictures, one might have thought this a more logical ending for this album than Prokofiev’s feather-light tribute to Haydn. In this instance it seems to be a policy of ‘saving the best till last’ (or going by order of composition?). Philippe Jordan and his orchestra give an ideal performance of the Symphony, ensemble sharp and polished, with the inner voices of Prokofiev’s Classical-style counterpoint clearly delineated, making the ‘wrong key’ return of the high string theme in the Larghetto all the more piquant.

From the opening ‘Promenade’ in the Musorgsky, the Paris National Orchestra sounds ‘old fashioned’ – the brass playing with vibrato, followed by plush string tone – which is surely appropriate; indeed, Jordan’s no-nonsense tempos and minimal rubato recall Toscanini’s 1953 recording with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Here, alas, the parallel ends. Where Toscanini took grisly delight in Ravel’s macabre orchestration for ‘Gnomus’, Jordan increasingly appears to be primarily concerned with well-manicured phrasing and ensemble. ‘Limoges’ is no rowdy day at the market, the gossiping women replaced by prissy articulation, with ever-so-precise punctuation by the percussion. Jordan’s matter-of-fact approach sometimes works: ‘Catacombae’ appears the more eerie with such impersonal playing, but we need some sentient feeling in the following ‘Con mortuis in lingua mortua’. Most disappointing is the culminating ‘Great Gate of Kiev’, the recording over-favouring a lone tubular bell at the expense of Ravel’s masterful orchestration. There’s far more grandeur and character in Claudio Abbado’s recording with the Berlin Philharmonic on Deutsche Grammophon.

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Daniel Jaffé