Musorgsky – Pictures at an Exhibition, Songs and Dances of Death / Gergiev

Featured recording: Musorgsky – Pictures at an Exhibition, Night on Bare Mountain, Songs and Dances of Death (Ferruccio Furlanetto (baritone), Mariinsky Orchestra / Valery Gergiev (Mariinsky)


A new all-Musorgsky disc by Valery Gergiev and his Russian charges, returning to the composer whose operas Gergiev has recorded with great success.

What’s the music like?

On paper this release is a brilliant way to start a Musorgsky collection, because it contains his two best loved works. Pictures at an Exhibition, appearing in its celebrated orchestration by Ravel, is a wonderful set of character pieces that fully captures an artistic exhibition and the viewer’s response to it. Night on Bare Mountain is equally vivid in its portrayal of a witches’ sabbath, and the right performance can strike genuine fear into the heart. Finally the Songs and Dances of Death for baritone and orchestra (not as depressing as they sound through opportunities taken for gallows humour!) appear in the orchestral version made by Shostakovich.

Does it all work?

It should do – because this is surely a home banker for Valery Gergiev, conducting both the music of his homeland and a composer in whose music he specialises. Yet something is awry, for two of the three live performances feel routine at best.

Pictures lacks spark and feels very polite, taking its time to reveal plenty of things in the score but rarely getting out of second gear, as though the exhibition has only a few days left to run. There is no edge to Gnomus, which should ideally be unhinged, and no sense of culmination in The Great Gate of Kiev, the work’s crowning glory. The Old Castle, while suitably mournful and featuring a lovely saxophone solo, drags its feet, while Bydlo, the old cart whose machinery lumbers down the track, has a disarmingly smooth passage here.

There are a few exceptions. The characterisation of Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle is brilliant, thanks to a sharp trumpet portraying the latter character, while the clucking of The Ballet of Unhatched Chicks in their Shells is winsome. But overall this version lacks real excitement.

Sadly Night on Bare Mountain is little better, and sounds like a version going through the motions, with an incredibly limp final chord. There are moments where the electric charge is more pronounced, especially when the dance music comes in around 1’45”, but otherwise this is disappointing fayre with little sense of terror.

All this is redeemed by Ferruccio Furlanetto, the commanding singer chosen for Songs and Dances of Death. There is an incredibly strong resonance to his voice, effortlessly taking charge of the Lullaby, while hurling his all into the end of the Serenade and the fatal triumphalism of The Field Marshal. Gopak, the third song, starts with threadbare bass sounding appropriately ghoulish, the sentiments of the poem laid as bare as the orchestration. Gergiev is inspired here, completing a version that stands tall alongside any competition.

Is it recommended?

Overall, no – unless you are desperate for a recording of the Songs and Dances of Death. For Pictures, alternative versions include those conducted by Claudio Abbado and Carlo Maria Giulini, with Abbado again the choice for Night on Bare Mountain.

Listen on Spotify

You can judge for yourself by hearing the album on Spotify here

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