The Marriage and Pictures

The Marriage [Orch. Vyacheslav Lavrent Nagovitsin]
Pictures at an Exhibition [Orch. Ravel]

Podleskin – Alexander Gerasimov
Kochkarev – Sergei Semishkur
Fyokla Ivanova – Nadezhda Vassilieva
Stephan – Yuri Vorobiev

Philharmonia Orchestra
Tugan Sokhiev

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 6 December, 2005
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Poor old Mussorgsky! If ever there was a composer whom one rarely hears in his own true voice it must be him as more often than not his works are heard in the orchestrations of others, even the most popular ones. And yet his original and unmistakable voice often shines out or at least can be heard trying to so do.

This rather short concert showed both sides of this. The brief comic opera, “The Marriage”, is based on a play by Nikolai Gogol, and dates from 1868. Like much of the composer’s output he left the project incomplete and only in piano reduction. The opera, which is a setting of the first act of the play, has since had a varied performance life. The initial performance was a private one that took place as the house of César Cui, with Mussorgsky and Dargomïzhsky performing the roles of Podleskin and Kochkarev. It then disappeared for some 40 years before its first public performance.

There have been brief revivals in various orchestrations (including those by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, Oliver Knussen and Colin Matthews), and sometimes as part of an extended elaboration of a complete full-length opera of Gogol’s play. The fact that such eminent musicians have found much to work on indicates that the original must have merits!

The narrative is slight and centres on the weak, indecisive and somewhat vain yet slovenly character of the Court Counsellor, Podleskin, a bachelor in the process of entering into a marriage arranged by the matchmaker Fyokla Ivanova. Supported by his much put upon servant Stephan and his friend Kochkarev, the “victim” of one of Madame Ivanova’s arrangements is prepared, cajoled and then forced out to meet his potential fiancé for the first time.

Mussorgsky’s stated aim was to make the music of the singers reflect natural speech rhythms and intonations as far as possible and thus to make the piece conversational. Much therefore depends on the singers getting the words across and, in a concert performance, helping move what plot there is along by good characterisation.

The Philharmonia assembled a cast of young singers from Russia and Kazakhstan who did just that; impressively for a decidedly non-standard repertoire piece none of them used scores. As Podleskin Alexander Gerasimov revealed a sappy, virile and resonant bass-baritone and an engaging stage persona. The various oscillations in mood and confidence of the character were all there in both voice and body language. In Nagovitsin’s orchestration the music that accompanies him is often rather sombre and lugubrious, and set in the lower reaches of the orchestra, and he tonally slotted in. Madame Ivanova has rather more chattering, busy and bright support from the orchestra, and in her part of the intriguing matchmaker Nadezhda Vassilieva revealed one of those typical fruity Russian mezzo voices with amazing almost baritonal qualities in the lower parts of her range. Her part is rather one dimensional, but she made what she could of it. The bass Yuri Vorobiev sang the part of Podleskin’s servant, who constantly has to report to his master on how the tradesmen of the town who are involved in the wedding preparations of the marriage are handling their duties, with an understatement that is probably present in the original narrative of the play. It was hard to see how he could do more. Completing the quartet was Sergei Semishkur as Podleskin’s friend Kochkarev. In an engaging light Russian tenor his arrival propelled the action towards its unclear conclusion. Podleskin is dressed and pushed out of the door – to what end we do not find out in the opera as the composer left it.

Tugan Sokhiev led the orchestra through the score with relish – he too obviously likes the music – and brought out the colours of Nagovitsin’s orchestral palette. Mussorgsky was definitely in there somewhere, but one felt he was struggling to emerge. (I’d like to track down Rozhdestvensky’s recording of his orchestration.) It felt as if brilliance was missing and this feeling was enhanced with Ravel’s glittering realisation of Pictures at an Exhibition, which found the players and conductor responding more exuberantly. Ravel’s orchestration allows the orchestral principals their moments to shine and those of the Philharmonia took their chances – saxophone, trumpet, piccolo and flute in particular. Perhaps some of the dynamic changes were not as effectively realised in the smaller and more intimate acoustic of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and some of the forte moments were a bit congested. However, the filigree airiness of ‘Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks’ was remarkable, as was the lugubrious depiction of the ox and cart of ‘Bydlo’. The ‘Catacombs’ section lacked some depth and mystery, but ‘Baba-Yaga’ was sonically exciting. ‘Great Gate of Kiev’ was not as overwhelming as one might have expected and would probably have come over better in a bigger hall, whereas “The Marriage” was better suited to the QEH with its more voice-friendly acoustic.

  • Further performance on Sunday 11 December at 3 o’clock
  • Philharmonia Orchestra
  • Philharmonia Orchestra information:
    Freephone 0800 652 6717

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