You really have to hand it to Simon Rattle. In a time of economic meltdown in the classical music recording industry, he continues to record all the standard repertoire from Haydn to Brahms to Mahler – and with no less an orchestra than the Berlin Philharmonic. The cash-strapped EMI has recently laid off almost two thousand staff, but they nevertheless continue to record a good proportion of Rattle's concerts with the Berlin Phil.
This new release is a live recording of concerts given in Berlin between 29 and 31 December 2007 and is in many ways a typical Simon Rattle affair: the main work on the CD – i.e. the one on which it is sold – is contrasted with a lesser-known work, and the conductor sheds far more light on the more obscure piece than the warhorse. The album's cover has us believe we're buying a recording of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, to which is added Borodin's Second Symphony as a filler, but the performance of the Borodin is ten times more compelling than that of the Mussorgsky.
To be fair, I find Ravel's orchestration of the Pictures unsatisfactory by the side of Mussorgsky's, a view shared by conductor Leopold Stokowski, so perhaps personal taste regarding texts comes into it. Though one might imagine that the range of colour available on a piano might be much narrower than that available in a full symphony orchestra, there's something far more searching about Mussorgsky's original piano score than Ravel's arrangement. The French composer always seeks out the most sensuous ways to orchestrate the piece, but at the expense of the hard Russian edge which permeates Mussorgsky's original creation. Some may like the bassoon duet setting of the second picture, 'The Old Castle', but for me the timbre is too velvety for the scene that the music is trying to portray. Similarly, the woodwind colours aren't quite right at the start of 'Tuileries': the setting for flutes, oboes and clarinets evokes a Debussy-like, Impressionistic mood, and the impact of the thickening of texture and widening of tessitura over the course of the movement in the piano version is lost in the orchestration. 'Bydlo' is more like it: snare drums bring us closer to the cold, violent world of Mussorsky's score. But on the whole, it's not terribly satisfactory.
Still, even allowing that Ravel is to blame for the sound world of this orchestrated version, Simon Rattle and the Berlin Phil are not at their best in this performance, which has the air of a warm-up before the main event. The brass in the opening Promenade are secure but not brilliant enough, a problem with the entire performance up to the last couple of movements. The savage melodic fragments in 'Gnomus' are so snatched at that they don't carry as much weight as they might; the saxophone solo in The Old Castle isn't nearly as poignant as others have achieved on record; and both the 'Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks' and 'The Market at Limoges' are dashed through at such a helter-skelter speed that these movements become more like technical exercises than pieces of music. By contrast, 'Bydlo' and 'The Great Gate' are stirring and there's more atmosphere about 'Catacombae' and 'Cum mortuis in lingua mortua', but on the whole this isn't the recording of Pictures at an Exhibition one might have hoped for.
On the other hand, I'm becoming a convert to the talents of Borodin on the basis of Rattle's fiery account of his Second Symphony. It's a piece of stunning colour, life and momentum, and Rattle's performance with the Berlin Phil could scarcely be more committed or persuasive. Here at last you really feel that the orchestra is playing Russian music and everything about their performance reeks of the classiness which their reputation suggests they are capable of.
The Second Symphony is the source of several themes for the much-derided musical Kismet, seen at ENO last summer; those who know it will instantly recognise the main theme from the first movement as being the basis of the song 'Fate'. Without being tampered with by Broadway, however, Borodin works wonders with this chromatic cell, using it as a thread to take us on a riveting journey through various degrees of savage darkness. Rattle coaxes vibrant, imposing sounds from the Berlin Phil, who are finally on their toes. The difference of orchestration between the almost velveteen Mussorgsky-Ravel and the muscular Borodin are particularly striking. I also love the second movement's contrast of light and dark themes, mixing dense tonalities with innocent, carefree ones. But it's the slow movement Andante which really tugs at the heartstrings, Borodin rising to the occasion with the kind of soul-searching melody that only the great Russian Romantics could provide. Stirring as the ensuing folk-dance infused Allegro finale and Prince Igor 'Polovtsian Dances' are, it's the slow movement of the Second Symphony which makes this disc worth the purchase, despite the disappointments of the Mussorgsky.