The Compact Collection

Mussorgsky: Orchestral works; Mahler: Symphony No7
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Back in the early 1920s Ravel famously transformed Mussorgsky's solo piano masterpiece Pictures at an Exhibition from keyboard monochrome to primary orchestral colours. I've always felt that something died in the process, maybe the Russian element, but the magnificently played, live recording by Valery Gergiev with the Vienna Philharmonic reclaims a healthy slice of the original's boldness. You can almost see the glint of Viennese brass, particularly in "Catacombes", where regal sonorities invoke a humbling sense of ritual. And you sense Gergiev's care over detail. Sample the sustained sullenness of "The Old Castle", the coy curl of the clarinet in "Tuileries", the jittery trumpet in the "Schmuyle" (his colleague Goldenberg's string bands sound more sumptuous than ever) or the majestic passage of the ox cart "Bydlo". Often the climactic "Great Gate of Kiev" sounds as if daubed in brash graffiti, but not here, where the overriding effect is of immaculate grand architecture. Each canvas has a burnished glow, though never at the expense of imaginative characterisation. I doubt Gergiev has made a better record and the couplings are just as good: Shostakovich's version of the Khovanshchina Prelude, Rimsky's Night on the Bare Mountain (with its machine-gunning bass drum) and a perky "Gopak" from Sorochinsky Fair.

Mahler's Seventh Symphony is more an internalised picture gallery, with its evocative "Night Music" movements and macabre, Goya-like scherzo. Two Viennese Sevenths are newly reissued. The oldest has that dare-devil adventurer Hermann Scherchen push the Vienna State Opera Orchestra to its technical limits for a gritty but insightful reading that still sounds good at nearly 50 years old. The second is broader than Scherchen's by almost 10 minutes, hence the need to spread on to a second super-budget CD. Lorin Maazel's digital VPO Seventh is a sensual, lolloping monster, seductive and superbly played. The paradise garden at the heart of the first movement is a hedonist's dream, yet there's also plenty of action. Mahler lets his imagination take the lead and Maazel is with him all the way.

Mussorgsky: Orchestral works – VPO/Gergiev (Philips 468 526-2)

Mahler: Symphony No7 – Vienna State Opera Orchestra/Scherchen (Westminster 471 263-2)

Mahler: Symphony No 7 – Vienna Philharmonic/Maazel (Sony "Essential Classics" SB2K, two discs)

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