About this Recording
8.110154 - MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition / RAVEL: Bolero (Koussevitzky) (1930-1947)

Great Conductors • Serge Koussevitzky

Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839-1881): Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Ravel)

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937): Rapsodie espagnole • Ma Mère l’Oye • Boléro

Serge Koussevitzky’s world première recording of a transcription that he commissioned, first performed, and published remains an undimmed and compelling testament. As a vigorous, self-promoting cosmopolitan,

Koussevitzky had left his Russian homeland following the 1917 revolution, and was quick to perceive the special opportunities offered by the artistic melting-pot of post—First World War Paris. It was here that so many of his fellow countrymen, notably Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Dyagilev and the Ballets Russes, were achieving success contributing to the fashionable craving for iconoclastic primitivism from the East. Having previously set up his own publishing company, Russischer Musikverlag, in Berlin in 1909 to secure and promote the copyrights of Russian composers in Europe, he consolidated his position with a Parisian office, Edition Russe de Musique, in 1921.

Koussevitzky was also shrewdly aware of contemporary rejection of the academicism and colour of the Rimsky-Korsakov school perpetuated by Glazunov, Glière, Liadov and others, in favour of a re-evaluation of Mussorgsky and Glinka as the true roots of Russian compositional tradition. With characteristic enterprise, he championed the increasingly progressive works of Scriabin and Stravinsky and had given performances in Paris of Mussorgsky’s operas, Khovanshchina and Boris Godunov at a time when the composer’s status was still plagued by misconceptions of supposed harmonic ineptitude and widespread acceptance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s editorial retouching. No such misunderstanding formed part of Ravel’s view of Mussorgsky’s genius, however, and Koussevitzky was well acquainted with the French composer’s enthusiasm for nineteenth century Russian music in general and the innovative qualities of Mussorgsky in particular. Ravel’s first opera, L’heure espagnole (1907), took inspiration from Mussorgsky’s unfinished comic opera The Marriage, and in 1913 he had assisted Stravinsky with the orchestration of parts of Khovanshchina. This represented the most fertile ground for securing the composer’s acceptance of a commission to make an orchestral transcription of Pictures at an Exhibition in 1922.

In a 1929 interview with friend and critic Michel Calvocoressi, Ravel remarked ‘You cannot alter a composer’s harmonies without altering the trend of his music. Rimsky-Korsakov, for instance, when he imagined himself to be correcting Mussorgsky’s harmonies, was really substituting music according to his own conception for music according to Mussorgsky’s conception. Mussorgsky’s alleged incorrections are sheer strokes of genius, very different from the blunders of a writer lacking linguistic sense or of a composer lacking harmonic sense.’

By a horrible irony, however, it had been the very same Calvocoressi who had unwittingly sent Ravel a copy of the original piano solo work to work from that had been posthumously edited for the publisher Bessel by none other than Rimsky-Korsakov. In the event, this was not the disaster it could have been. Ravel was only minimally misled by Rimsky’s amendments, resulting in some unauthentic pitches in Samuel Goldenberg and The Great Gate of Kiev, together with the substitution of a pianissimo start to Bydlo instead of Mussorgsky’s original fortissimo. Claiming that it was the least interesting to orchestrate, Ravel started with the final picture, The Great Gate of Kiev, which gave him unexpected trouble, but thereafter completed the work speedily.

Koussevitzky himself conducted the world première at the Paris Opéra on 19th October 1922 with an orchestra assembled from outstanding Parisian musicians of the day. Publication of the full score in 1929 made the work more widely available, enabling Ravel’s transcription to make swift international headway and to supersede previous attempts by Tushmalov and Sir Henry Wood. It also served to generate much renewed interest amongst pianists in Mussorgsky’s original solo keyboard work. Further attempts at orchestration followed, most spectacularly by Leopold Stokowski in 1939, but none has matched the popularity of Ravel’s transcription, which was eventually taken up and recorded by Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra.

Set down so closely to the transcription’s inception, Koussevitzky’s intimate connection with every facet of the work remains conspicuously individual. His reading is a touchstone of colour, subtlety and finesse that places graphic awareness of the original Hartmann paintings firmly within the expressive musical context of Mussorgskian Russian soul. Whether in the elements of fairy-tale grotesque in Gnomus or Baba-Yaga, the pell-mell market place at Limoges (a pertinent French connection), the mysteries of The Old Castle or the Roman Catacombs, the music’s narrative and play of light and texture are consummately realised. Note also Koussevitzky’s engaging way of imperceptibly nudging the Promenades forward. He forges on with anticipatory zeal until the guide is no longer needed, but subsumed within the thematic fabric as an interpreter of the dead language in Cum Mortuis before finally accompanying entrants through The Great Gate to a triumphant conclusion. With the tonal splendours of the Boston Symphony in prime condition at his disposal, this was a classic recording waiting to happen.

The selection of Ravel’s works is apposite. Instrumental colour, both solo and in increasingly diverse combinations set against an obsessive rhythmic and dynamic tattoo, remain the raison d’être of Boléro. The aromatic and vibrant Rapsodie espagnole, one of his earliest orchestral works, illustrates the composer’s fascination with Spain, while exotic climes also contribute to the orientalism of the central movement of the suite from Ma Mère l’Oye. Here, though, any threat of unease is tempered by imagery viewed through the eyes of a child, another of Ravel’s lifelong preoccupations. Koussevitzky reveals the music’s delicate textures with transparent allure and is no less attentive to the dynamism of the more spectacular moments. As with Mussorgsky, every picture tells its own story

Ian Julier

Mark Obert-Thorn

Mark Obert-Thorn is one of the world’s most respected transfer artist/engineers. He has worked for a number of specialist labels, including Pearl, Biddulph, Romophone and Music & Arts. Three of his transfers have been nominated for Gramophone Awards. A pianist by training, his passions are music, history and working on projects. He has found a way to combine all three in the transfer of historical recordings. Obert-Thorn describes himself as a ‘moderate interventionist’ rather than a ‘purist’ or ‘re-processor,’ unlike those who apply significant additions and make major changes to the acoustical qualities of old recordings. His philosophy is that a good transfer should not call attention to itself, but rather allow the performances to be heard with the greatest clarity.

There is no over-reverberant ‘cathedral sound’ in an Obert-Thorn restoration, nor is there the tinny bass and piercing mid-range of many ‘authorised’ commercial issues. He works with the cleanest available 78s, and consistently achieves better results than restoration engineers working with the metal parts from the archives of the modern corporate owners of the original recordings. His transfers preserve the original tone of the old recordings, maximising the details in critical upper mid-range and lower frequencies to achieve a musical integrity that is absent from many other commercially released restorations.

Producer’s Note

Besides featuring some glorious music making, this disc illustrates a dramatic improvement in recording techniques over the span of some seventeen years. Koussevitzky’s 1930 world première recording of Pictures was made using essentially the same technology in place since electrical recording had been adopted five years earlier. Climaxes are rather congested; percussion seems to have been stationed far in the rear (see Gnomus) so as not to overload the wax master disc cutter; and the legendary Boston strings take on a rather hard edge. Nonetheless, Koussevitzky’s conception comes through with admirable clarity.

By 1945, refinements in recording technology allowed listeners to better appreciate Koussevitzky’s reputation as a colorist; (listen particularly to the start of the Malagueña). Two years later, the use of wide-frequency-range lacquer master discs as a backup to the still-standard wax discs produced near-high fidelity results in

Ma Mère l’Oye and Boléro. The lacquers were the basis for one of RCA Victor’s earliest LP releases in 1950 (LM-1012), and thus I have used this as a source for the present transfer. The remaining items have come from Victor "Z" and pre-war "Gold" pressings (for Pictures) and postwar shellacs (for the Rapsodie).

Mark Obert-Thorn

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