Top Ear

Gergiev brings the Vienna Sound to Mussorgsky

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Jeremy Lee writes

To my knowledge, this is only the second time the august Vienna Philharmonic has taken the Mussorgsky Pictures into the studio; the previous one was with Previn (also on Philips).  The Viennese musicians were comfortable with the typical Russian mode of lyricism, harmony and color back then, and at any rate they seem very suited to the Russian idiom under Gergiev who also did Tchaikovsky’s last 3 symphonies with the orchestra.

By and large, Gergiev and the Viennese deliver a very good performance of the Pictures.  The various Promenades are beautifully shaded, the Old Castle’s melancholic atmosphere is greatly enriched by the upholstered string sound, and the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks’ woodwinds sparkle and glitter, points that we would more or less expect from the orchestra whose high standards have held up well throughout the years.  Yet this is no merely aristocratic reading:  hear the red-hot, vital, terrifying reading of the Gnomus, or the exciting Limoges heralded by some really bubbly horn playing, or the lung-power the brass section gives to the Catacombae, and you will instantly recognize that the credit of this lovely performance cannot be fully attributed to the Vienna Philharmonic.  No, you have to hand it over to till-man Valery Gergiev whose mostly fiery, forceful and thrilling conducting style ekes the best out of this reputedly unwilling orchestra.  Under Gergiev, the Viennese are injected with an authentic Russian style of impetuosity that makes it sound as though Mravinsky and his Leningrad orchestra were performing it, which is no mean praise.  That quality is something Previn’s reading lacked, one that was well-played but almost devoid of vitality.  Still, putting aside the Vienna factor, I still feel that more focused, powerful readings such as Sinopoli’s, Celibidache’s or Maazel’s, all featuring orchestras who really live the notes, would give longer-lasting listening pleasure.  But these comparisons do not diminish the intrinsic worth of the performance under review which is by itself a recommendable reading as mentioned.

Alas, the other big item in this programme, the Night on the Bare Mountain, is neither very exciting nor very well-played.  The cymbal player in particular seems unable to cope with the admittedly virtuosic writing, skipping a few beats here and adding some there, and at the part where the cymbal plays the syncopated rhythm with the trumpets he gives up altogether.  To compare, Sinopoli and his New Yorkers play the pants off this piece to exhilarating results.  Happily this small disappointment is overshadowed by the remaining two pieces:  a sensitive, beautiful prelude to Khovanshchina, and the catchy, lively Gopak from Sorochintsy Fair, which is the musical embodiment of a Good Time especially under this team.  (Orchestras take note:  this little dance is guaranteed to make a spectacular encore!)  Sound is very good.  So while this slightly stingy disc (at 51 minutes) may not represent a completely successful effort that sweeps the board, its virtues are admirable, and listeners wanting to hear the Vienna sound in a decidedly Russian work should not hesitate one bit.  I suspect even those who don’t bother about orchestras would derive a good bit of listening pleasure from this disc.


  • Album name:  Mussorgsky:  Pictures at an Exhibition;  Night on the Bare Mountain;  Prelude to Khovanshchina;  Gopak from Sorochintsy Fair
  • Performers:  Valery Gergiev (conductor);  Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
  • Label:  Philips 468 526-2
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  51:44

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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