Sunday, September 7, 2008

Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition, Russian Easter Festival Orchestra and Night on Bald Mountain

Today we'll go over a disc that you could almost call a mix tape of Russian classical music favorites. If you're a classical music beginner looking to sample some truly memorable musical works, this is a great disc to buy or download.
Charles Dutoit and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition No 1-10; Night on the Bare Mountain; Khovanshchina - Prelude; Rimsky-Korsakov: Russian Easter Festival Overture
Decca, 1987

I generally hate to buy classical music CDs containing works by multiple composers (after all, which composer do you file it under?) but I gladly made an exception for this exceptional CD. I challenge you to find works more thrilling than Rimsky-Korsakov's Russian Easter Festival Orchestra. And one listen to Pictures at an Exhibition and you'll wish you were a brass player.

Before we get to the listener notes, I'll tell a brief story about a time when I performed Pictures at an Exhibition. Too many years ago, I was involved in a brass quintet made up mostly of the principal chairs of the Syracuse Symphony Youth Orchestra. We formed the group to have some fun and make a little extra money playing weddings and other performances in the community.

But at one of the weddings we played, the bride wanted to have the Promenade from Pictures at an Exhibition performed during the processional. Don't get me wrong: it's a beautiful work, and it sounds great when played by a brass quintet. But the problem is that the Promenade is in 5/4 time. The bride, along with everybody else in the bridal party, would have to do a stutter-step every fifth beat!

It turned out that the bridal party just walked up the aisle, and we were just being anal to worry about it. Oh, and the second trumpet player's digital watch alarm went off right in the middle of the ceremony, thereby proving the maxim that the things you worry about are never the things that actually go wrong. Fortunately, weddings are (usually) one-shot deals--I don't think we would have gotten repeat business out of this bride.

Let's get into the listener notes for this CD:

Listener Notes for Night on the Bare Mountain:
Whenever you see this work on a CD or in a concert program, it will typically be credited to Mussorgsky, but written with the words "Orch. by Rimsky-Korsakov" or "Arr. by Rimsky-Korsakov" written in small print below it. And like many of Mussorgsky's compositions, the history of the work is confusing. Mussorgsky composed a version of this work in 1867, and later incorporated the work as the third act in one of his operas, Mlada. Neither of these compositions saw the light of day during Mussorgsky's life.

After Mussorgsky's death in 1881, Rimsky-Korsakov arranged this work for orchestra, but he so heavily edited the composition that the work in many ways became entirely his own. It was this work that went on to become famous. Ironically, Rimsky-Korsakov has since come under criticism for his edits and so-called "corrections" of Mussorgsky's work, and classical music listeners are now increasingly going back to the original Mussorgsky composition. Of course, if R-K hadn't revised and modified this work, it would have never been heard in the first place. There's just no satisfying people sometimes.

1) Do you recognize the very first theme of this work? This theme was used in the Disney movie Fantasia, and you could argue that the theme was co-opted by the movie to such an extent that our culture now associates the work with the movie and practically forgets the original composition. Another example of this co-opting phenomenon: in the minds of most modern listeners Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries is associated either with Bugs Bunny ("Kill the Wabbit!") or the movie Apocalypse Now. Only classical music buffs know it from Wagner's own opera.

2) Listen for the brass, led by the trumpets, playing the theme at the 2:57 mark. This (along with several other examples in this piece) is a good example of triple-tonguing, an unfortunately named technique that I used regularly in my days as a former trumpet player. Maybe that's why I was so popular with the ladies back then.

3) Note also at 4:39 the french horns and the trombones repeat this triple-tonguing theme, but their articulation sounds far muddier (at 5:04 you can hear the trumpets play this theme again for a quick and clear contrast). That's why the trumpet player always gets the girl.

Listener Notes for Russian Easter Festival Overture:
We've listened to this work once before in this blog, so I won't spend a lot of time on it today. But as a quick reminder, this is one of R-K's best known works, and it's one of my personal favorites as well.

1) Listen at 0:57 for the cello playing the melody over a bevvy of flutes playing a surprisingly difficult part involving "double-tonguing" which is a variation of the triple tonguing done by the trumpets above. Yep, woodwind players, especially flute players, can double- and triple-tongue too.

2) At 5:23, the key theme ("Dahhh dut dut dahhh") is played by the entire orchestra. Crank up the volume all the way and listen to this part again, but pay special attention to the enormous foundation of the tubas and base strings. Is that gripping or what?

3) At the 12:23 mark, listen to the awesome yet controlled power of the low brass playing the key theme. Once again, this is a great time to really crank up the volume--and I'd suggest leaving it cranked up for the rest of the work. I'd love to hear the Montreal Symphony Orchestra live so I can see for myself exactly what kind of monsters they have for trombone and tuba players.

Listener notes for Pictures at an Exhibition:
This work is a musical representation of stroll through a gallery of artwork. And, as Mussorgsky fans have come to expect, there's also a confusing history behind this work. Mussorgsky originally wrote this in 1874 (in only about 20 days by the way) as a suite for piano, but the work was re-edited by his friend Rimsky-Korsakov after Mussorgsky's death. Fortunately, Mussorgsky's original manuscript survived, but it wasn't until 1931 that the original version became available so that pianists could perform an "as intended" version of the work.

I'll confuse you even more. The version we are listening to here is an orchestration of Mussorgsky's piano suite by Maurice Ravel, and Ravel was one of more than 20 composers that have arranged this work for orchestra (Ravel's orchestration is by far the most widely known however).

But set aside your confusion for now and just listen to this spectacular work, which features some of the most triumphant themes and some of the best brass parts you'll ever find in classical music.

1) The trumpet solo of the Promenade theme at the very beginning of this work has to be done right. You have to hit each note with confidence, use a round tone, and don't use so much damn vibrato. Inxay on the ibratovay. This guy simply uses way too much. The notes should be solid, not quavery. There's no reason to sound like you're playing with an advanced case of Parkinson's disease.

2) I'm sorry to harp a second time on vibrato, but at the 1:18 mark, the saxophone uses so much vibrato that he sounds like he ought to be in a 1930's era big band. One of my worst pet peeves about classical music is when otherwise well-trained musicians confuse a heavy vibrato with artistry.

3) You can see images of some of the artwork represented in this suite on Wikipedia.

4) The opening of the eighth movement ("The Catacombs") is an excellent showpiece for any brass section. If you want to see how your local symphony's brass players measure up, see how the principal trumpet handles the solo at the beginning of the work and then see how the brass section handles the eighth movement.

5) At the beginning of the final movement, when the entire brass section plays the Promenade theme, can you hear the trumpet playing the melody above it all? Notice how the trumpet player doesn't use any vibrato here. To me that's proof that his over-use of vibrato in his solo at the very beginning of this work is artistically inappropriate.

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