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Gogol/Mussorgsky/Nagovitsin The Marriage
Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures from an Exhibition

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 11 December 2005


Alexander Gerasimov (the civil servant)

Yuri Vorobiov (the servant)

Nadezhda Vassilieva (the matchmaker)
Sergei Semishkur (the friend)

Philharmonia Orchestra/Tugan Sokhiev

Attending this concert involved ignoring the urging on TV to stay in our homes to avoid the noxious black cloud which had already reached Canary Wharf from the Hemel Hempstead explosion that Sunday morning. It was worth taking the risk!

The large audience came for the Pictures; I, because I didn't know The Marriage.

Other critics have been dismissive of that Mussorgsky rarity about a cautious bachelor, unduly so I reckon.

Having in earlier years devoted a great deal of time to exploring Mussorgsky's songs, it was fascinating to recognise clear links with them in these scenes from Gogol. The Marriage consists of fragments of an opera never completed, but one of great interest in that in it he anticipated the naturalistic speech settings of 20 C composers including Vaughan Williams and Janacek.

I found its deliberate tediousness and triviality (earnest discussions of a tail-suit and boot polish!) extremely funny, and perceptive in characterising a master and servant relationship economically - pace Anthony Holden's put-down in The Observer and an even more damning one in the Financial Times (free access for a week). Then we had the procrastination with the matchmaker of the prospective bridegroom, and her replacement by a friend who pushed the reluctant lover towards - - who knows what?

A splendid cameo of Russian life of the times, acted with elan by a top quality Maryinski quartet of fine singers who sung it by memory (they'd obviously performed it on stage), the presentation for us supported by good sur-titling.

It cannot be so unworthy of attention as others think, having had orchestrations completed by Rimsky, Rozhdestvensky and Knussen/Matthews amongst others. The Vyacheslav Lavrent'yevich Nagovitsin version sounded serviceable, not so obtrusive as to divert attention too much from the singers. A Mussorgsky torso well worth having 'collected'!

The Pictures were not so overwhelming in the small QEH as feared, and were well cleaned and presented to sparkling effect by Tugan Sokhiev in Ravel's bright colouring which does draw attention to itself, leaving my preference with the original piano version.

Review of Mussorgsky's The Marriage in Gramophone:
Composed in 1868 The Marriage is his most outré composition, a document of calculatedly experimental 'realism' - - abandoned as a one-act fragment in piano score only - - Gennadi Rozhdestvensky is the latest in a succession of orchestrators, and if his scoring occasionally sounds like a cross between Janacek and an accompaniment to cartoon comedy, it should be remembered that Mussorgsky's music is itself far ahead of its time. The recording dates from 1982 and is less vivid than it might be, nor is the singing uniformly first-class (though Vladimir Khrulev is excellent in the all-important part of Podkolesin). A minor distraction is the eccentric transliteration in an otherwise admirable booklet. But for the moment beggars can't be choosers—there is no other current version in the catalogue, and no aficionado of Russian opera can afford not to know this extraordinary work.' (Olympia CD  OCD145 76 minutes : DDD)

© Peter Grahame Woolf