MUSSORGSKY: Songs and Dances of Death, Pictures at an Exhibition, Night on Bare Mountain
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MUSSORGSKY: Songs and Dances of Death; Pictures at an Exhibition; Night on Bare Mountain 

spacer Furlanetto; Mariinsky Orchestra; Gergiev. No libretto. Mariinsky 0553 (SACD)

Recordings Mussorgsky Furlanetto Cover 715

This very well-engineered disc continues the series Valery Gergiev has issued with the expertly trained Mariinsky Theater orchestra — unquestionably the ensemble with whom he achieves best results. The powerful 1875–1877 cycle Songs and Dances of Death (“Pesni i plyaski smerti”) was left unorchestrated by the composer. Its four songs approach the theme of death in various iconic yet potentially literal ways; it remains a masterpiece of word setting and musico-dramatic timing. Ferruccio Furlanetto, with his dramatic intelligence and craggy, still-potent bass, is one of the world’s leading Boris Godunovs; it would be nice to see the Met revive Stephen Wadsworth’s highly worthy Boris production for this audience favorite. He also sang Ivan Khovansky (Khovanshchina) in Vienna last year. Furlanetto has released a solid piano-accompanied version of the cycle (OPERA NEWS, January 2011). Since then he’s had more experience singing Russian opera — including at Moscow’s Bolshoi — and his intelligent use of the language has improved. That said, this is not a version of the cycle to attract native speakers of Russian, not when there are versions by (among others) Irina Arkhipova, Sergei Leiferkus, Yevgeny Nesterenko and Galina Vishnevskaya — for and to whom Shostakovich wrote and dedicated the orchestrations used here in 1962. Furlanetto — most comfortable, in this close miking, in the songs’ more angular moments — always knows what he’s singing, but he remains audibly a gifted, well-prepared foreigner. Many possible subtleties of inflectional elude his traversal. That may not unduly disturb those who don’t know the language, and his singing has many virtues, including considerable tonal appeal — despite the occasional growl — and dynamic subtlety. But how can a company issue a recording of this work without appending song texts in any languages?

The thirteen-minute Lisztian orchestral showpiece Night on Bare [literally, “Bald”] Mountain derives from a theatrical incidental music project Mussorsgky began in 1860, at at the age of twenty-one. In 1922, Maurice Ravel — from an early age attentive to Russian music — orchestrated Mussorgsky’s 1874 piano-accompanied cycle Pictures at an Exhibition, linked programmatic pieces evoking ten paintings by his late friend Viktor Hartmann. Promenades and interludes intersperse the “pictures,” as if listeners were touring a gallery. The underlying work is a triumph of invention and coloristic contrast; Ravel’s version makes it a spectacular orchestra showpiece. In all three works, Gergiev and his forces provide the needed glittering, idiomatic support. 

It’s depressing, if unsurprising, to see that contemporary Russian nationalist politics have crept even into CD program notes. Leonid Gakkel, otherwise channeling reliable information, assures readers that the importance of Shostakovich and Mussorgsky’s work lies in “a moral cleansing for the Russian people … today … since we Russians require new efforts to preserve our country’s humanistic traditions.” Careless of Ravel and Furlanetto to have been born in European Union countries! At sixty-nine minutes of well-performed, high-quality music, this is quite a generous CD, which would make a good sampler for newcomers to Mussorgsky’s genius. spacer 

DAVID SHENGOLD

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