Classic CD: Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition

By William Dart

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition.
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition.

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's latest Naxos outing is assured of a niche audience - punters determined to have every orchestral transcription of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. The arranger here is Peter Breiner who also conducts the performance, with bonus orchestral versions of the composer's Songs and Dances of Death and The Nursery.

Breiner, who made his mark by dressing the music of The Beatles in mock-Baroque garb, has undertaken more illustrious projects than this. The sheer vulgarity of his stroll through Mussorgsky's familiar gallery will have you returning to Ravel's well-known version with a new appreciation of the Frenchman's ingenuity and taste.

Breiner's paint box favours the tawdry side. Early on, a busy portrait of Mussorgsky's Gnome ranges from ugly, thundering snarls to the kitschiest of harp trimmings. Later, the Limoges marketplace is similarly over-crowded.

The melodramatic rumble of timpani and portentous chords detract from Mussorgsky's incisive depiction of the kvetching Goldberg. Breiner's motives behind presenting two of Mussorgsky's brilliant song-cycles without a singer escape me.

The first number of The Nursery, in which the child pleads with her nanny to tell a story, simply meanders; the grim vision of Field-Marshall Death that ends Songs and Dances of Death sounds like a Soviet-era film score.

In the meantime, New Zealand fortepianist Kemp English has released the first set of what will eventually comprise the complete 47 keyboard sonatas of Leopold Kozeluch (1747-1818).

English may promise Beethovenian storms to come in later works, but the first four on this disc are firmly in an 18th-century classical mould. Comparisons with Haydn and Mozart are inevitable and, here and there, the Czech composer has moments of startling invention.

Those familiar with Mozart's piano sonatas may well wonder whether the opening movement of his K333 was influenced by the Cantabile in the second of Kozeluch's sonatas.

English, playing a modern American replica of a classic Walter instrument, shows enviable drive and flamboyance in the fast movements, even if slow movements seem a little emotionally stark. One waits with impatience for Sonata 20, when English plays an instrument by New Zealander Paul Downie.

- NZ Herald

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