CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 18 MARCH 2010
Sergey Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet Suite (sel. Ashkenazy); Piano Concerto No. 1. Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Ashkenazy). (Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, p.; Vladimir Ashkenazy, cond.)
Sticking with the source is usually sound advice. In most cases, the movie's not as good as the book, the sequels aren't as good as the original, and the arrangement falls short of the composer's creation. Then there are the exceptions. Everybody can call to mind images from Alfred Hitchcock's movie Psycho—Janet Leigh being murdered in the shower to the sound of Bernard Herrmann's stabbing strings. But can you name the author of the book on which Hitchcock's film was based?
Well, that novel was written by Robert Bloch. And, like Bloch's book, Modest Mussorgsky's piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition owes its enduring popular impact to an adaptation. In the case of Pictures, it was Maurice Ravel's 1922 orchestration that did the trick. And it's in this modified form that Pictures has become one of classical music's greatest hits.
But if you find yourself at Severance Hall this weekend, you'll hear neither the original Pictures nor Ravel's familiar arrangement. Instead, the Cleveland Orchestra offers an orchestration of Pictures by this week's guest conductor, Vladimir Ashkenazy. Ashkenazy's version isn't as vividly colorful as Ravel's. And if you've grown up loving such distinctive touches as Ravel's alto saxophone in "The Old Castle," you might find yourself a little disappointed. But there are compensations. At the outset of the "Goldenberg and Schmuÿle" section, Ashkenazy turns over Schmuÿle's voice to a solo violin-less striking than Ravel's muted trumpet, to be sure, but arguably more efficient at conveying the character Mussorgsky had in mind. Nor does Ashkenazy stint on spectacle: just listen to the ominous percussion that echoes through his "Catacombs" or to his ear-splitting setting of "The Great Gate of Kiev." Ashkenazy offers an interesting alternative to Ravel's subtler, more ingenious version—and, not surprisingly, he conducts the work with enthusiasm and conviction.
Ashkenazy's Pictures wasn't the only adaptation on Thursday's program. Not only is Prokofiev's ballet Romeo and Juliet based on Shakespeare's play; the play is itself based on sources stretching back into ancient times. Ashkenazy, leading a suite of his own selections from the ballet, was at his best in carefully articulated but unexaggerated realizations of "Masks" and "Dance of the Knights" and in some high-octane excerpts from Act Two.
More Prokofiev rounded out the evening: the First Piano Concerto, written when the composer was still a student. Soloist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet brought plenty of vitality and fervor to the work, prompting an immediate standing ovation. And yet I missed the textural clarity, the sense of the work's architecture, and the crackerjack coordination of soloist and orchestra that mark the best performances of this concerto. Ashkenazy himself offered a far less congested performance as pianist on an excellent mid-70s Decca recording. Of course, performing this breakneck music live is an inherently risky business. It's often true that, as Romeo and Juliet's Friar Laurence observes, "They stumble that run fast."
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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