Mussorgsky, orch. Ravel
Pictures at an Exhibition
Symphony No.2 in B minor, Op.5
Prince Igor – Polovtsian Dances
Sir Simon Rattle
Recorded at concerts on 29-31 December 2007 in Philharmonie, Berlin
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: January 2008
CD No: EMI 5 17582 2
Duration: 75 minutes
The catalogue is awash with recordings of Pictures at an Exhibition (leaving aside Mussorgsky’s piano original, most of them use Ravel’s masterly orchestration). Simon Rattle loves the orchestra and its potential. This coming-together should work well … the opening brass summonses (cued by a sound akin to wind through a tunnel, an effect that can be discerned elsewhere during these recordings) are solemn and lack expectancy. Time and again though one appreciates the Berliners’ playing and Rattle’s care over dynamics, colour, timbre and blend. A lot of preparation is in evidence here – much orchestral refinement and the saving of ‘something’ for the big moments; furthermore, Rattle’s choice of tempos is often moderate, a good friend of musical articulation.
However, such consideration also compromises characterisation, and the amount of calculation invested here, while always serving a purpose, also saps at liveliness and imagery while demarcating, in notational terms, Ravel’s cultivated and glittering scoring. There is much to admire in what is almost an anti-showpiece interpretation, but there is also a lack of Russian ‘dark earth’ sonorities (something that Ravel himself devalued in his so-precise orchestral dressings). And the recording is a little small-scale and limited – very explicit, though, like Ravel’s craftsmanship, and one is left admiring Rattle’s point of view.
The Borodin fillers – for such they must be considered: the composer’s name and the works chosen barely visible on the front cover! – are maybe surprising, but Borodin 2 did get at least one performance from Rattle in his Birmingham days. The symphony’s a great piece – concise while being dramatic, frolicsome, eloquent and rollicking. Rattle clearly has affection for the work and if his name brings it to a wider public, all well and good. The Berlin Philharmonic occasionally sounds unfamiliar with the piece, but there’s an attractive spontaneity to the performance that sits well with Borodin’s openness and the oboe and horn solos in the second and third movements, respectively, are the epitome of class, the Andante producing the most affecting music-making here and some of the deepest tones anywhere on the disc, and the finale is given the most-enthusiastic execution. If not emulating at least three classic recordings of this endearing piece – those of Kletzki (now on Testament), Martinon (Decca) and Smetáček (Supraphon) – Rattle’s championing is very welcome.
The ‘Polovtsian Dances’ from “Prince Igor” (minus the sometimes-included preamble of ‘Dance of the Polovtsian Maidens … and a chorus, for that matter) is rather too consciously shaped and detailed; glossy, too, the product of a post-“Kismet” era. Enjoyable though especially if you like conductors who fish for details, even if, as here, brazen splendour is at a premium.
Issued in January 2008 and recorded just shortly before – I assume the recording dates to be correct – such ‘rush’ might explain why the booklet is devoid of track timings: the design presumably at the printers before the recorded performances even took place.