Mussorgsky: Songs and Dances of Death (orch Edison Denisov); St John's Night on Bald Mountain; Prokofiev: Alexander Nevsky, Op 78

Reviewed on Fri 28 Jul, 2017

Then there’s Alexander Nevsky, as bold and butch as any on disc, the Crusaders heavy laden, the Russian People rising lustily, the Battle on Ice jagged, weighty, bullish and once into the fray, cumulatively thrilling.

Mussorgsky lovers will surely be interested to hear Edison Denisov’s at times subtly re-harmonised settings of the Songs and Dances of Death, the scoring darkly luminous, sometimes doubling the voice (as in the ‘Serenade’), sometimes evoking a sickeningly nightmarish world ('Trepak’). Bass-baritone Vladislav Sulimsky is a strong-voiced, reliable lynchpin and Dimitri Kitaenko etches every musical line with a sure hand. Prior to Mussorgsky-plus-Denisov comes Mussorgsky-minus-Rimsky, namely Night on a Bare Mountain, the original 1866-67 version (ie St John’s Night on Bald Mountain), Kitaenko and his Cologne Orchestra hurling us into a veritable Devil’s pit, with meaty sound (especially from the bass drum). No sunlit Rimskyian fanfares here! Then there’s Alexander Nevsky, as bold and butch as any on disc, the Crusaders heavy laden, the Russian People rising lustily, the Battle on Ice jagged, weighty, bullish and once into the fray, cumulatively thrilling. True, this Czech chorus isn’t quite the equal of the one that sang under Karel Ancerl years ago (Supraphon), but it’s still pretty good and the arrival of the perky second theme (7:03) is as bizarrely cheerful as ever. Mezzo Agunda Kulaeva sings a moving ‘Field of the Dead’, but perhaps most impressive of all is Alexander’s majestic ‘Procession into Pskov’, which draws to a very broad conclusion. The warm-textured sound serves the performance well, save for the occasional want of inner detail.
–Rob Cowan