by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I was interested in the September 2, 2010 BBC Proms telecast because I’d been searching the Internet for recordings of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition — both of the original piano version and of orchestrations other than the famous (and familiar) one by Ravel — since Monday night, when Charles and I went to the Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park and heard former San Diego civic organist Robert Plimpton and percussionist Jason Ginter do the complete Pictures in an arrangement of their own, which I’d assumed would be basically an organ version with percussion commentary and instead was a true dialogue between the organ and the assortment of percussion instruments (including vibraphone and bells) Ginter played. I’ve never liked the Ravel orchestration of Pictures — I love Mussorgsky and I love Ravel, but their sound worlds simply don’t mesh; Mussorgsky’s is bold, striking, almost black-and-white and very Russian, while Ravel’s is subtle, sensual, colorful and very French (down to his use of a saxophone — a French invention — to state the principal melody of the “Old Castle” movement).
When I heard Leopold Stokowski’s orchestration — both in an early-1940’s recording conducted by him and a recent one on Naxos by his protégé, José Serebrier — I thought, “That is what Pictures at an Exhibition should sound like as an orchestral piece.” Rooting around on the Net I was able to run across a performance of the piano version by Rudolf Firkúsny from 1957 (not as much of an energy rush as Horowitz’s or Richter’s, but still great stuff and confirmation that the best way to hear Pictures is still as the solo piano piece Mussorgsky wrote) and a Cleveland Orchestra concert conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy as well as a video of this Proms concert featuring the orchestration — actually done before Ravel’s — by Sir Henry J. Wood, who founded the Proms concerts in the first place. Wood was one of those classical musicians obsessed with broadening the audience for his art and doing that by bringing it to new venues; he would do orchestral concerts on beachfront promenades, and from this the concept of “the Proms” was born even though they’re now held in respectable — and enclosed — traditional classical venues like the Royal Albert Hall. Wood was also the first major conductor to sign a recording contract, with British Columbia in 1911, and while his early records were severely cut versions of masterpieces to fit within the 4 ½-minute limitation of a 12-inch 78 rpm record side, they did fulfill his intent to bring his music to a wider audience and they also established a market for classical instrumental records, which later led to the recording of complete symphonies, including some which Wood conducted.
I was wondering when they were going to slot in Wood’s orchestration of Pictures since it still hadn’t been played when the two-hour video had only half an hour to run — and it turned out the way they were able to squeeze it in during the remaining running time was because Wood had left out all the transitory “Promenade” sections (meant to represent the viewer at the exhibition — a memorial to Mussorgsky’s late friend Victor Hartmann, who was really an architect and a designer rather than a fine artist — walking from work to work) except the opening one. Wood’s orchestration was interesting in its heavy reliance on the brass, sometimes overly so — the “Bydlo” movement didn’t sound like one ox-drawn cart being driven through the streets of a primitive village, but like the entire Russian army marching off to the front — and its refusal to spotlight individual players; there were a few brief solos for one instrument or another, but none of the concerto-like writing in much of Ravel’s. At that I found myself liking Wood’s version a good deal better than Ashkenazy’s, even though I’d expected that Ashkenazy would have two legs up on anyone else orchestrating Pictures — he’s Russian and in addition to being a conductor he’s also a top-level concert pianist (in fact, he established himself as a pianist long before he started conducting) who had had Pictures in his piano repertoire. Indeed, I think Ashkenazy is the only person who has ever recorded Pictures as both a pianist and a conductor — but his arrangement seems thick and heavy, relatively uninteresting and lacking either the color of Ravel’s (as wrong as I think it is!) or the almost Rite of Spring-ish primitivism of Stokowski’s.
As for Wood’s, it’s quite a capable piece of work even though it’s clearly a product of its time (the early 1910’s); it’s not as good as Stokowski’s arrangement, which strikes me as far superior to Ravel’s and much more “Mussorgskian” — certainly much more Russian-sounding, which for a nationalist composer like Mussorgsky is all to the good — and Wood’s suffers from his bizarre decision to omit all the “Promenade” movements but the first one, but it’s still worth hearing and a blessed antidote to the paintbox colors Ravel stuck on the piece, which makes about as much sense as an orchestral realization of Mussorgsky’s sound world as the colorized version of Picasso’s “Guernica” produced by Matisse’s great-granddaughter as a mash-up of Picasso’s and Matisse’s styles (I’m not making this up, you know!) does as a realization of Picasso’s intent to use the black-and-white medium to show the horrors of war. It’s certainly better than the heavy, sluggish, ghastly arrangements Wood came up with of Baroque pieces like Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 and Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks. (I think the “historically informed performance” movement has set up an almost dictatorial set of expectations of how Bach and other composers of his era should be played — I think the two Naxos CD’s of pianists of the 1920’s and 1930’s playing Bach and feeling free to interpret him the way they would Beethoven or Chopin or Liszt are utterly fascinating and a refreshing antidote to “historical performance” fascism — but the sludgy performances of Baroque orchestral works Wood and other conductors of his generation gave were indications of what the “historically informed” crowd were rebelling against.)
The September 2, 2010 Proms concert was conducted by François-Xavier Roth (his last name pronounced like the English word “wrought”), who was French and spoke with a thick French accent in the inevitable mid-concert interviews (which, as usual, reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s description of one of the characters in a play of his as managing “to state the obvious with a sense of real discovery”), and all the other music was French (which makes me wonder why he didn’t program Ravel’s arrangement of Pictures instead of Henry Wood’s — probably a tie-in because Wood was the founder of the Proms concerts). There was a lot of announcers’ (and musicians’ — one of the most bizarre developments in the telecasting of classical music is that performers are now expected to sit for interviews during the intermissions, right after they’ve finished playing often difficult pieces, and babble away like athletes during halftime of the big game) jabber about how the first composer represented, Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764, which makes him a contemporary of J. S. Bach), moved from the provinces to Paris at age 50 and suddenly took the world of French opera by storm; while the second one, Joseph Canteloube (1879-1957), started out as a Parisian cosmopolitan and gained fame and his market niche by recasting the folk songs of the Auvergne region of southern France into “classical” scores. (Actually, according to his Wikipedia page, Canteloube was born in the Auvergne region, in the town of Annonay, and was bilingual in French and Occitan, the Auvergne dialect in which the famous songs are written.)
Xavier-Roth clearly had fun with the Rameau work, an instrumental suite from the opera Dardanus, which he conducted with one hand while beating a large drum with the other — which, given that all the works were in dance tempi, actually made sense and added to the fun of the concept. He joked about the similarity of what he was doing to a rock concert, and indeed there were some musical similarities as well: Rameau’s music has a strong beat and was written in dance beats, and the second movement of the suite even had a call-and-response section between parts of the orchestra. The assortment of songs from Canteloube’s Chants d’Auvergne which followed were sung by Anna Caterina Antonacci and focused more on the first two books than any of the later ones (Canteloube published the first of his five volumes of Chants d’Auvergne in 1924 and his last in 1955 (and if you listen to the album of Natania Davrath singing all of them, in sequence — beautifully — you’ll get the distinct impression that he was draining the well pretty dry towards the end). Antonacci faces some stiff competition in these songs — recordings in my collection include the pioneering 1930’s set with Madeleine Grey, the complete set with Davrath and an engaging selection by Kiri te Kanawa — and she didn’t quite make the songs as magical as those three singers did but she did communicate them effectively (despite the oddness of the language — at least the word “amour” in Occitan is the same as in French!).
I’ve noted elsewhere that I think Les Baxter’s scores for Yma Sumac’s first album, Voice of the Xtabay, are every bit as good as the Chants d’Auvergne in terms of taking folk material and turning it into “classical music” — and if Voice of the Xtabay weren’t so vocally challenging (Sumac reportedly had a five-octave range and Baxter’s arrangements were designed to showcase all of it) it might well have gained a similar place in the repertoire by now. After that Xavier-Roth presented the British premiere of a work by a modern French composer, Martin Matalon: Lignes de fuite, which translates as “Converging Lines.” I wouldn’t exactly call it one of those modern classical pieces whose composer runs away, kicking and screaming, whenever he comes up with anything that sounds remotely like a melody (a line from our friend, and former Los Angeles Times music critic, Ken Herman); I’d say Matalon is simply uninterested in either creating or avoiding a sense of melody. The piece really does sound like converging lines, and at eight minutes I probably would have liked it; unfortunately, it kept going annoyingly for 10 minutes more than that, and given that Matalon’s musical style (at least as heard here) doesn’t allow for the piece to build to any kind of climax, your only clue that it was about to end was that it started getting softer and slower.