Modest Mussorgsky – Pictures at an Exhibition
Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Deutsche Grammophon, 2016
The recording Pictures at an Exhibition takes its title from that of its central work, but this is actually a collection of three works, two composed by Modest Mussorgsky and one by Pyotr Tchaikovsky. They are Pictures at an Exhibition, Night on Bald Mountain and the Waltz from the Swan Lake, performed by conductor Gustavo Dudamel with the Wiener Philharmoniker.
I have immediately to state that this performance gave me the impression of something unresolved because to some nice (and, unfortunately, nothing more but nice) features that from time to time have the chance to emerge do not correspond a clear and definite path. This can be applied to each of the three works for different reasons, but – I guess – for the same cause.
Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition are performed in the famous orchestral version by Maurice Ravel. Some of them are fine, as The Old Castle with its mysterious atmosphere, but in other cases and, what is worse, from a general point of view, they are not satisfactory. This is something that it is immediately perceivable from the very first Promenade, which is light and solemn at the same time but it does not express anything else than the idea of an entry without any expectation for the exhibition, as if the visitor is going there with little curiosity and interest. Therefore, the sudden surprise created by the second piece and first picture, the Gnomum, becomes almost incomprehensible in this absent-mindedness.
This example is sufficient to define the character of these Pictures. They are finely performed and there is nothing to complain in this regard, but only on a superficial level because they lack that “something” that would have made them exquisite, as if the inspiration was present but did not find the way to express itself. I think that this lack is only Dudamel’s responsibility because the Wiener Philharmoniker play wonderful and their colours stand out vividly.
The other two works show a similar tendency. In the first eight minutes of Night on Bald Mountain, Dudamel tries to find some dramatic tension that he never reaches and it is necessary to wait for the last three minutes to find something better, because here the orchestral colours are powerful enough to convey an idea of serenity and peace. Tchaikovsky’s Waltz is not better and it seems that Dudamel has contented himself with a lively, elegant execution that unfortunately lacks that subtlety that would have made it irresistible.
In the end, I have to say that this recording aroused very little enthusiasm in me. If on the one hand there is a marvellous orchestra that play very well, on the other the absence of any “plot” in the conductor’s mind prevents to enjoy this music as it should be and leaves a sense of incompleteness that is perplexing and bewildering – a pity indeed.