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Blazing Birthday

New York
Issac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
05/18/2008 -  
Modeste Petrovich Mussorgsky: St. John’s Night On Bald Mountain (original version) – Songs and Dances of Death (orch. Edison Denisov) – “I have Attained the Highest Power” from “Boris Godunov” (1869 version) – Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Maurice Ravel)
René Pape (Bass-baritone)
Met Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (Conductor)

Last night, I dreamed of the usual wondrous gifts presented on a birthday. Perhaps a Cartier watch or a private jet or an original Chagall. Upon waking on my own natal day, I realized the afternoon would be spent listening to Valery Gergiev conducting the MET Orchestra in an all-Mussorgksk program. I knew I got the best option of all.

Oh, possibly I would have changed the MET for Gergiev’s own Kirov Orchestra. The MET is too perfect, too European, they play too well. When it comes to Mussorgsky, I want my trumpets to have the flat medieval sound, I want my trombones to rise up and shatter the Carnegie Hall cupolas. I need those strings to be dark and heavy the way Russian strings should be.

But once Gergiev started with an entirely new sounds for three of the four works, and a breathtaking performance of the familiar Ravel orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition, my particular musical affinities evaporated.

Certainly the opening St. John’s Night On Bald Mountain was a total surprise. The usual version is the “clean-up” by Rimsky-Korsakoff, or rarely, Shostakovich. Even rarer is Mussorgsky’s second version. This, the first version, was like a different work altogether. The opening witch’s assembly to praise Satan—strings whirling into a mystical blur with kettledrum louder and louder—should be grafted on the “bowdlerized” versions. Ditto the piccolo trills with the strings and more drums. From here, the piece goes a bit downhill (nothing can beat the opening) but Mussorgsky works with a variety of scales including some whole-tones which must have sounded too exotic to his peers.

But also new was the Edison Denisov orchestration of Songs and Poems of Death. The works are phantasmagoria enough on the original piano, and Shostakovich’s orchestration is a conservative backup. Denisov explores new impressionistic orchestral colors, which could have detracted from the songs. But René Pape, the great German bass-baritone gave them immense power. Denisov was hardly effete in his style, but those songs have their own implied resonance, and Pape’s own resonant voice gave the power.

Pape was equally at home in the Act II Boris Godunov monologue, this the first version by Mussorgsky, considerably different and less climactic than his next versions, but again Pape triumphed, with four curtain calls.

The Mussorgsky-Ravel was familiar to the sold-out audience, but Gergiev didn’t quite find his stride until the middle. The first three sections were almost lackadaisical. Once the conductor began “Two Polish Jews”, the pictures became actually visual. It was a performance of both breath and breadth. Gergiev never tried to shock with either speed or volume, but let the work speak for itself, with French timbres and weighty even mystical Russian reverberations.

Harry Rolnick



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