Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition; Liszt: Piano Concerto No 1
Mussorgsky’s Pictures were originally composed for the piano. In that form he created a spacious canvas necessitating something of a symphonic sound from the piano. This proved exquisitely demanding and only a few brave pianists, including Prokofiev, dared to scale its fearsome crags. Maurice Ravel, to whom we owe its renown, was paid 10,000 francs to orchestrate it for Serge Koussevitzky. But as one might look at and interpret a picture in many different ways so then different sonic paint brushes might offer alternative views and insights? Thus Leonard Slatkin’s notion to bring together an eclectic selection of arrangements, some quite outlandish, might seem fresh and appealing?
D. Wilson-Ochoa is the Nashville Symphony’s Principal Music Librarian and former horn player. His neat opening ‘Promenade’  was arranged, using woodwinds, at first, then pizzicato strings. This walking bass/cello line leads into the orchestral build-up, to give the impression of the visitor arriving at the gallery with mounting excitement and anticipation of seeing its treasures. Sergey Gorchakov’s portrait of Gnomus  is simpler, more sober and menacing than Ravel’s; his colours darker. Walter Goehr’s ‘Promenade’  is calmly introspective as the visitor passes thoughtfully on; it features sensitive use of solo strings, double woodwind and muted brass. Emile Naoumoff’s entrancing arrangement of Il vecchio castello  has, at its heart, a glistening piano solo with woodwinds and cellos sounding the lilting Italian Sicilienne – absolutely gorgeous. Van Keulen’s ‘Promenade’  is a much grander walk while his Tuileries  is a perky arrangement full of childish mischief and high spirits. Wind and brass are delicately mixed - woodwinds supported by muted trombones and trumpet – to create an appealing pastel. Conductor/pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy makes an impact with four horns in unison. Low strings and heavy percussion are used to underline the heaviness of Bydlo his picture of the Polish cart on enormous wheels .
Carl Simpson’s ‘Promenade’  is brief and straightforward but with an unexpected cheeky cheep anticipating – Ballet of the unhatched chicks . Lucien Cailliet was a student of Vincent D’Indy, His arrangement exerts his imaginative faculties to the full, out Ravel-ing Ravel. He makes exuberant use of wood-block, rattle and a flutter-tonguing blast from the trumpet. Sir Henry Wood’s vision of the Two Jews …  markedly underlines the differences between the two: the rich one glowering and overwhelming and the cowering pauper. The next ‘Promenade’  (and the one that Ravel left out) is by Lawrence Leonard. It’s grand too , in terms of its rich harmonies and orchestrations; carrying on the self-regarded magnificence - one might say - of the rich Jew. Leo Funtek’s picture of French women arguing around a market square in Limoges, Le marché  makes for a snappy riot of colour. Funtek surmounts its challenges of articulation through its brief 1:26 of presto writing. The Catacombae  of John Boyd, demonstrates his experience with wind, brass and percussion. It is a haunted subterranean vision and is more menacing than Ravel’s portrait. It leads seamlessly into Ravel’s own arrangement of Con mortuis in lingua mortua . As David Nice says, “the French master’s subtle halos and shadows remain uniquely evocative.’ That wonderful orchestrator, Leopold Stokowski, adds his characteristically vivid colouring to The hut on fowl’s legs (Baba-Yaga) . This is a satanic portrait using four trumpets and eight horns supported by shrill whistling upper woods, to evoke Baba-Yaga’s terror-filling flight.
The concluding The Bogatyr Gate at Kiev  is the most substantial picture. Douglas Gamley paints this massive gate in resplendent colours using to fine effect the chorus of the Nashville Symphony and an organ. What magnificence - magnificence to rival 1812!
Liszt’s first surviving piano concerto was sketched out in 1832, when the composer was 21. It was only orchestrated 17 years later, with the help of the young composer Joachim Raff. Its first performance in 1853 at Weimar was conducted by Berlioz. Revisions followed in 1857. Its three movements are cyclically connected. This striking live recording of Peng Peng’s articulate and polished reading is sturdy in the portentous episodes and sensitively shaded in the quieter and more introspective passages. Slatkin gives sterling support.
Rob Mathes’s arrangement of The Star Spangled Banner was commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra under its conductor Leonard Slatkin. It was conceived as a eulogy on the tragedy of 9/11. This performance - part grandiloquent, part restrained - is affecting.
Instead of the familiar Ravel orchestrations of Mussorgsky’s Pictures here is an eclectic collection of alternatives, always colourful and often arresting.
-- Ian Lace, MusicWeb International
Catalog Number: 8570716
Composer: Franz Liszt, John Stafford Smith, Modest Mussorgsky
Conductor: Leonard Slatkin
Orchestra/Ensemble: Nashville Symphony Chorus, Nashville Symphony Orchestra
Performer: Peng Peng