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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 28 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 09
Mussorgsky slaughtered; Verdi dramatized
Arts & Entertainment
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Mussorgsky slaughtered; Verdi dramatized

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer The sound on this Blu-ray audio-only disc of Mussorgsky's 'Pictures at an Exhibition' is spectacular, with thunderous bass and terrific dynamics. Too bad there isn't an ounce of music to be found anywhere. In fact, so egregious are the sins against Mussorgsky and the world of music in general that I found listening very difficult. I had to listen in very small batches. This is a case of something so awful that it is almost funny. Just when you thought it couldn't get worse, a new horror assaults your ears. (I'm gonna play this one as a joke for friends!)

For the record, the man who orchestrated and conducted this mess is one Peter Breiner, leading here the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. (Strangely, the screen display of the disc's chapters mistakenly shows Leonard Slatkin conducting the Orchestre National de Lyon.) Truth be told, there are a great many people who actually like this guy; for he has sold many CDs and performed all over the world. But then, there are also an awful lot of people who watch Jerry Springer. Perhaps someone with no previous knowledge of 'Pictures' (either the original piano version or the brilliant Ravel orchestration) would find interest, instead of horror, in these overblown orchestrations.

Specifics on sound: 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio or 2.0 Stereo. I prefer the DTS version. Violins are overly bright and a little gritty; bass drum VERY prominent. Also on the disc are Breiner's egregious orchestrations of two of Mussorgsky's song cycles: 'Songs and Dances of Death' and 'The Nursery.' On top of the sins listed above, they are just boring.

On the other end of the scale, we have Verdi's masterful 'Messa da Requiem,' on a video Blu-ray with soloists and the LA Phil, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel at the Hollywood Bowl. Considering the live venue, the sound is pretty good, especially that of the Los Angeles Master Chorale. But the soloists sound a little thin. Of particular merit are the dynamics, from the opening whispers of the Chorale to the thunderous outbursts of the 'Dies Irae.'

I have no quarrel with the super-dramatic conducting of Mr. Dudamel, but the quartet of soloists leaves much to be desired. Superstar tenor Vittorio Grigolo over dramatizes every phrase, often looks in pain, and fails miserably to sustain a good legato line. Except for his dramatic high notes, he seems a little underpowered with lower phrases dropping out entirely. Mezzo Michelle DeYoung has delighted me many times as Brangaene and other roles both in Seattle, at the Met and in Scotland, but here she seems uncomfortable in the Verdi idiom. Perhaps because of the above-mentioned miking, she also lacks sufficient warmth and power in the lower range. Basso Ildebrando D'Arcangelo is mildly impressive, perhaps more for his looks than for his warmth and power.

But soprano Juliana DeGiacomo walks away with the honors. She's a big lady with a big beautiful voice under complete control. Best of all, she feels the music much more than the others and phrases her lines expressively: gorgeous tops with plenty of power when needed, but also with that elusive skill for singing high notes softly. Indeed, the last 15 minutes (the 'Libera me') of the 'Requiem' approach true greatness in the superbly dramatic work of DeGiacomo and Dudamel with the Orchestra and the Chorale. She is thrilling.

There's an 18-minute bonus: an interview with Dudamel about this work, conducting a chorus (without baton) vs. an orchestra (mostly with baton), and his love of the Hollywood Bowl. What he lacks in articulate English he makes up for with genuine heart. It's interesting that he mentions Herbert von Karajan, because it is the 1967 performance by von Karajan and an absolutely unbeatable quartet of soloists at La Scala (on modern DVD) that I would recommend as the best possible recording of this work. The sound is surprisingly good for the period. The quartet is a very young group, comprising Leontyne Price, Fiorenza Cossotto, Luciano Pavarotti, and Nicolai Ghiaurov - all at their absolute best. Price and Pavarotti are of course superb, but it's Cossotto and Ghiaurov (with the voice of a god) who totally blow me away. This is a must-have recording.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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