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CD Review

Modest Mussorgsky

Naxos 8.555924
  • Night on the Bare Mountain (Rimsky-Korsakov version)
  • Hopak from Sorochintsy Fair
  • Golitsin's Exile from Khovanshchina
  • Night on the Bare Mountain (Original version)
  • Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Ravel)
National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine/Theodore Kuchar
Naxos 8.555924
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan

To go from the Rimsky version of Night on the Bare Mountain to the original is to go from civilization to a primitive culture. The thunderous timpani in the original are awesome. The witches are more sinister and have a laugh that haunts the memory like a nightmare. There is no soft close. The demons stay with you. Kuchar and his orchestra are impressive. The Ukrainian orchestra sounds big and compares with the best anywhere. I have another recording of this version with Jacek Kaspszyk and the London Symphony on a Collins Classics label from 1989. It is nowhere near as intense as this Naxos recording. This disc does have the finest Rimsky versions I have heard. Still, if you want someone else's orchestration I'd suggest Stokowski's, which is darker.

The recording also features one of the finest Ravel orchestrations of Pictures. There are two others in my collection that should be mentioned in this context. One is Hebert von Karajan and the Berlin Phil. The other happens to be the first one I ever had, Carlo Maria Giulini and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The Karajan has been given high praise from several different sources, but he is too aristocratic. His performance is awesome in precision and virtuosity, but there is something lacking. It is as if he is emotional in a distant sort-of-way. Giulini, on the other hand, is earthy. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is no slouch either. In the Italian maestro's hands there is grandeur but also all of the other emotions in this music. Kuchar is also emotional but in a different way than Giulini. It is somewhat like he took von Karajan's grandeur and imbued it with the emotion missing there. It sounds more Russian, whatever that means. The recording adds to the feeling, it is nothing less than awesome. Perspective is natural and details clear. The impact of the timpani can be felt. You really should hear all three to conceptualize the music and appreciate it more fully.

Of course I can't not tell you that I prefer Stokowski's transcription to Ravel's. For openers, literally, Stokowski introduces the music on the lower strings instead of the trumpet, creating a deeper, more Russian feel to it than the Frenchman's. Still, the Naxos is the best Mussorgsky/Ravel I have heard.

Add in the original Night on Bald Mountain and you have a recording that is not only good for the price; it is well worth being in any serious listener's collection.

Copyright © 2003, Robert Stumpf II

Trumpet