Carlo Ponti

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; Night on the Bare Mountain

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This 2008 PentaTone super audio disc has two things going for it and two things going against it. On the plus side, the program features Mussorgsky's greatest orchestral hits: Ravel's orchestration of his piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition and Rimsky-Korsakov's arrangement and orchestration of his opera interlude Night on the Bare Mountain. But also included is Liadov's orchestration of the introduction to his unfinished opera The Sorochinsky Fair, plus two excerpts from his opera Khovanschina in Rimsky-Korsakov's orchestrations: Dawn on the Muscovy River and the Dance of the Persian Slave Girls. Also, the sound is spectacular, offering depth, clarity, and impact. The definition of the individual instruments, the balance of the different choirs, and the sheer presence of the whole orchestra is as lifelike as one is likely to hear outside of the concert hall.

However, Carlo Ponti is a capable conductor, and in the right repertoire -- Respighi, say, or Ibert -- one can imagine that he might even be formidable. But in the rugged music of Mussorgsky, Ponti sounds out of his element. Pictures sounds more inertly pictorial than evocative and the sense of affection and exaltation that suffuses better performances of the work is missing here. Likewise, Night is, to adapt the words of the poet, sound and fury signifying nothing much, or, to put it another way, a series of effects without causes. And the three lesser known works receive even shorter shrift with the Khovanschina excerpts sounding more lackadaisical than tragical. The playing of the Russian National Orchestra, while not quite a disgrace, is still surprisingly slack for a professional orchestra and startlingly unidiomatic for a Russian orchestra playing nationalistic music. The ensemble is loose, the balances muddy, the colors garish, and the rhythms just short of ungainly. In short, for a single disc of Mussorgsky's orchestral music, look to the classic recordings by Reiner, Svetlanov, and Abbado, and not here.

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