Ensemble Berlin

Maurice Ravel: Le Tombeau de Couperin; Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures of an Exhibition

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Something that the two pieces on this album have in common is that they were originally written for piano and Ravel orchestrated them both, except for a few of their movements. Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition is probably even more familiar in Ravel's brilliant orchestration than in its original form. The French composer must have felt that two of the six movements of Le tombeau de Couperin, Fugue and Toccata, were best left in their original form since he chose not to include them in the orchestral suite. Wolfgang Renz was bold to tackle them in his orchestration of the suite for chamber ensemble, a group made up of a wind quintet and string sextet, but their delicate textures do in fact work here where they might well have been cumbersome if played by a full orchestra. Overall, Renz's orchestrations, while frequently following Ravel's lead, offer inventive solutions to the questions of transcribing piano music for a mid-sized chamber ensemble. He's more successful in the Ravel than the Mussorgsky, due to the character of the music. Le tombeau de Couperin evokes the elegance of the French Baroque with nimble lightness and filigreed ornamentation, and the timbral variety and transparency of this ensemble seem ideally suited for a transcription of this music. The Mussorgsky piano suite, on the other hand, has a far wider dynamic and textural range; there are movements -- "The Great Gate of Kiev," for example -- for which the grandeur and volume of a full orchestra are needed. Especially since the Ravel orchestration is so familiar, this chamber version sounds puny in comparison. Most of the other movements work well, though. Ensemble Berlin, a group founded in 1999, plays with subtlety and obvious delight in the music. The oboe playing is not entirely consistent, and its sluggishness at some points in the Prélude to the Ravel suite bogs down an otherwise delightful performance. The sound is clean, detailed, and vibrant.

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