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 Favourites, Modest Mussorgsky

Modest MussorgskyRussian composer Modest Mussorgsky is undoubtedly best-known for two pieces: his fiery orchestral tone poem Night on a Bare Mountain (sometimes rendered as Night on Bald Mountain), depicting a gruesome witches' sabbath, and his Pictures at an Exhibition, a suite consisting of musical representations of several paintings by the composer's friend Viktor Hartmann, originally for piano but perhaps more famous in its orchestration by Maurice Ravel.

Mussorgsky has in the past suffered from attempts to "improve" upon his composition and orchestration, most notably by composers such as Rimsky-Korsakov, and for a long time his works were known only in these amended versions. Recently however, efforts have been made to restore Mussorgsky's compositions to their original state, and I have chosen a few of these recordings amongst my selections below.

Orchestral Works

By far the best-known orchestration of Mussorgsky's piano suite is the one by Maurice Ravel. Emmanuel Krivine's recording with the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg is full of wonderful colours and shows off Ravel's orchestration to great effect. The linking Promenades are never allowed to become stodgy, and there are many fine solo contributions from the Luxembourg players.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

The declamatory trumpet that begins Ravel's version is such a familiar sound that the opening, string-heavy Promenade in this fascinatingly imaginative orchestration by Stokowski will definitely come as something of a shock! Matthias Bamert conducts the BBC Philharmonic in a thrilling recording, which also includes other Stokowski arrangements, such as his version of Night on Bald Mountain as heard in the 1940 Disney film, Fantasia.

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

As a brass player myself, I couldn't leave out this intriguing alternative to Ravel's orchestration, namely Elgar Howarth's arrangement for brass ensemble, magnificently performed here by the Brass Ensemble of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra under the direction of Lutz Köhler.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC

This arrangement by Rimsky-Korsakov (the serene ending to the piece is nowhere to be found in Mussorgsky's original, and actually uses music from his opera Sorochintsy Fair) is the version most familiar to many. Georg Solti conducts the London Symphony Orchestra in a vivid performance full of heaving lower strings and snarling brass.

Available Format: Presto CD

A collection of lesser-known works, performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker under Claudio Abbado, including the Scherzo in B flat major, the Festive March from Mlada, and Night on a Bare Mountain in a version for bass soloist and chorus. The disc also includes a fine account of Pictures at an Exhibition, still with the Berlin players, but conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini.

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

Opera and Vocal Works

Like Night on a Bare Mountain, Boris Godunov was subjected to a multitude of revisions by Rimsky-Korsakov and others. Valery Gergiev, conducting forces from the Kirov Opera, here restores Mussorgsky's own final version from 1872, with commanding performances from Vladimir Vaneyev in the title role, Vladimir Galouzine as Grigory, Evgeny Nikitin as Rangoni, and Olga Borodina as Marina.

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

Orlin Anastassov (Boris), Alessandra Marianelli (Xenia), Pavel Zubov (Fyodor), Ian Storey (Grigory), Vladimir Vaneev (Pimen), Peter Bronder (Prince Shuisky), Teatro Regio di Torino

A 2010 performance of Mussorgsky's original 1869 version from the Teatro Regio, Turin, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. The chorus especially are on top form, and the cast is led by Orlin Anastassov and Ian Storey as Boris and Grigory respectively.

Available Format: DVD Video

also available on Blu-ray

Available Format: Blu-ray

Alexander Tsymbalyuk (Boris Godunov), Yulia Sokolik (Fyodor), Eri Nakamura (Xenia), Heike Grötzinger (Xenia’s nurse), Gerhard Siegel (Schuisky), Markus Eiche (Andrey Chelkalov), Anatoli Kotscherga (Pimen), Bayerisches Staatsorchester, Kent Nagano

Kent Nagano conducts the Bayerisches Staatsorchester in this 2007 staging at the Nationaltheater, Munich by director Dmitri Tcherniakov. Tcherniakov's updated staging will not be to everyone's tastes, but there is much splendid singing from a cast including Paata Burchuladze, Camilla Nylund, Doris Soffel, and Klaus Florian Vogt.

Available Format: DVD Video

Alexander Tsymbalyuk (Boris Godunov), Yulia Sokolik (Fyodor), Eri Nakamura (Xenia), Heike Grötzinger (Xenia’s nurse), Gerhard Siegel (Schuisky), Markus Eiche (Andrey Chelkalov), Anatoli Kotscherga (Pimen), Bayerisches Staatsorchester, Kent Nagano

also available on blu-ray

Available Format: Blu-ray

Mussorgsky's comic opera is given a delightful performance from the forces of the Ekaterinburg State Academic Opera and an all-Russian cast under conductor Evgeny Brazhnik. The opera is perhaps best-known for its Act Three Dream Sequence into which Mussorgsky incorporated music from Night on a Bare Mountain, an episode audibly relished here by the chorus members!

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

A mesmerising performance of Mussorgsky's song cycle, with some formidably chilling singing from baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, accompanied by pianist Ivari Ilja.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

An absolutely outstanding performance of Mussorgsky's piano cycle from pianist Steven Osborne. Every picture is delicately and thoughtfully painted, including a lumberingly cumbersome ox in Bydlo, pleasingly chirpy Unhatched Chicks, and a fearsome Baba Yaga. Highly recommended!

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC