Mussorgsky, orchestrated Ravel
Pictures at an Exhibition
Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op.36
Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse
Recorded in July 2006 in Halle aux Grains, Toulouse
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: March 2007
CD No: NAÏVE V 5068
Duration: 76 minutes
It’s all change at the Toulouse Capitole Orchestra: the venerable Michel Plasson (for so long associated with this characterful orchestra) has become “Honorary Conductor”, and Tugan Sokhiev is “Principal Guest Conductor and Musical Advisor”. On the strength of this first record together – more are promised – the partnership of Sokhiev and the Toulouse orchestra promises to be one to follow.
This ‘debut’ offers no novelty in terms of repertoire and no attempt is made to do something different with the chosen works in order to justify ‘yet another’ recording of two well-documented (if wonderful) pieces. The playing order would have been better if the Tchaikovsky opened the CD; then we could first enter the world of fateful suspense and, 76 minutes later, bow out to the majesty of ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’ as illuminated by Ravel from Mussorgsky’s piano suite.
I did indeed play the Tchaikovsky first. The opening movement displays Sokhiev’s integrity of approach; suitably baleful the opening fanfares may be, but Sokhiev has a long-term view that satisfies the whole movement, one that is not without drama (try the closing bars) or vivid detailing; and the Toulouse Capitole Orchestra is clearly playing with terrific commitment and, in these times of homogeneous orchestral timbres (irrespective of where the ensemble is from!), the musicians gratifyingly retain some ‘regional accents’ (to borrow David Gutman’s phrase in his Classical Source review of Antonio Pappano’s recording of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies 4-6, on EMI).
Sokhiev’s achievement isn’t quite as compelling as Pappano’s, but the Russian’s view of the score – intense, shapely and proportioned, without sacrificing passion – is a very satisfying one. Maybe the second movement, ‘Andante in modo di canzona’, is harried a little as well as being too emotionally inflexible, but there’s plenty of pathos without self-pity. The pizzicato scherzo that follows is nimble and has sinew in the textures; it could be more playful, though. The ‘crash’ into the finale isn’t as incisive as it might be and it is here that one fully realises that Sokhiev is very concerned with articulation; although the tempo is ‘fast’ enough, one is too aware of every note having its place instead of the music heading inexorably towards the return of the ‘fate’ motif, but Sokhiev at least ensures that we are not presented with mere ‘noise’. However, the promise of the first movement is not quite maintained. One could now list the usual suspects when bringing forth comparisons (Mravinsky, Bernstein, Szell and, more surprisingly perhaps, José Serebrier on BIS), but Sokhiev stands his ground well and certainly draws very well prepared and very responsive playing.
Pictures at an Exhibition is given a particularly fresh and glowingly characterised reading, one relishing Mussorgsky’s individual ‘musical sketching’ of Viktor Hartmann’s paintings and Ravel’s masterly (if not necessarily ‘Russian’) scoring. This performance gets of to an impressive start with the solo trumpeter given time to thoughtfully set the scene – which painting shall we view first? Highlights include ‘The Old Castle’ with a particularly smoky saxophone solo, the slow tempo astutely judged to generate atmosphere; ‘Bydlo’ has world-weary tread; in ‘Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle’ Sokhiev draws real depth of string-tone for the former and the ‘shivering’ of the latter is conveyed by some extremely accurate trumpet-playing; the heavy brass of ‘Catacombs’ has genuine deadly oppression; and ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’ is uplifting, Sokhiev cleaning up an usually awkward moment very effectively (at 3’42”), and accepting that the bass drum strokes should be in the ‘wrong’ place (4’30” and 4’39”), a bell pealing out a resplendent, brass-saturated victory.
The Halle aux Grains is the Orchestra’s concert-hall home and regular recording venue; it sounds more resonant than usual – and not to advantage – but there is spaciousness, full-tone and, generally, satisfying impact; occasionally, though, one wants to strip away some of the resonant veneer. But, this is a release to recommend, Pictures being especially involving, and anyone interested in ‘orchestral manoeuvres’ needn’t hesitate.