November 26, 2008


Tchaikovsky: Manfred Symphony; The Voyevoda. Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko. Naxos. $8.99.

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; Night on the Bare Mountain; The Sorochinsky Fair: Introduction; Khovanshchina: Prelude; Dance of the Persian Slave Girls. Russian National Orchestra conducted by Carlo Ponti. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

     The sweep and passion of 19th-century Russian music continue to make it irresistible to audiences and conductors alike. But its popularity comes at a price: performance expectations for the works of such composers as Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky are very high, and even a perfectly serviceable approach that might be more than acceptable is the music of (for example) Anatol Liadov or César Cui does not quite attain top ranking in the works of more-often-played composers.

     This is true even when the works themselves are not among a composer’s best known. Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, based on a poem by Byron that is a variant of Goethe’s Faust and that also inspired Schumann and others, has never attained the popularity of the composer’s other late symphonies (it was written between Nos. 4 and 5). It is a huge, sprawling work – at around an hour, Tchaikovsky’s longest symphony – requiring a very large orchestra and a conductor who can really pull together its episodic strands without plunging the audience into the deep depression that lurks within practically all its principal themes. This is a tall order, and Vasily Petrenko tackles it with gusto, producing a finely honed reading that nicely contrasts the work’s relatively few lighter sections with its many dark and dismal ones. Unfortunately, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, although it is a fine orchestra, does not really have the sound needed for this symphony. The work requires very lush, burnished strings playing with so much warmth that they constantly risk turning mushy (but never do). The Liverpudlians have a bright, clean sound, which means middle voices and accompaniments to the themes come through clearly, but the symphony as a whole lacks the melancholy darkness that can make it tremendously effective. This orchestral sound is by no means a failing – in other music, it would be a major asset. But in both the symphony and the tone poem The Voyevoda (in which a minor government official discovers his wife is unfaithful, orders a servant to kill her, but ends up being shot himself by mistake), the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic simply seems a little out of place. There just isn’t enough brooding intensity in the playing to give the works their full effect, even though the conductor seems to understand the music well and does his best to shape it tellingly. Petrenko is this orchestra’s principal conductor, so he does have the opportunity – if he wants it – to shape the ensemble’s sound differently; so perhaps he favors what is heard on this CD. Still, it would be nice to hear how Petrenko’s approach would work with an orchestra of richer, warmer strings – such as the Russian National Orchestra.

     The RNO, however, does not have Petrenko at the helm for its SACD of well-known Mussorgsky works. Instead, it has its own associate conductor, Carlo Ponti (eldest son of the film producer of the same name and actress Sophia Loren), and Ponti does not let this excellent orchestra soar to its very high capabilities. The RNO’s sound is simply wonderful, combining precise playing with deep-hued intensity. But Ponti’s interpretations are superficial. Pictures at an Exhibition is certainly all right, but there is nothing distinguished about it – so hint of swagger or thoughtfulness in the repeated “Promenade,” no sense of mystical quietude in “Con mortuis in lingua mortua,” no fairy-tale menace in “The Hut on Fowls’ Legs.” The miniatures that almost play themselves come off very well – such as “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” and, in a very different way, “The Great Gate of Kiev” – but it feels as if the RNO could handle them without Ponti being there at all. Far from imposing an interpretation, Ponti seems to avoid one. The same is true of the shorter works here: nothing snarls in “Night on the Bare Mountain”; the excerpt from The Sorochinsky Fair is pleasant and unassuming; and the same may be said of the Khovanshchina Prelude and “Dance of the Persian Slave Girls,” the latter of which lacks any sinuousness. This is a very well-played recording, and the sonic reproduction, as usual in PentaTone SACDs, is of the first quality, but the disc is sadly lacking in interpretative elegance.

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