Pictures At An Exhibition has always been a great live favourite, and it returned to the Proms this year in its Ravel orchestration under the CBSO and Sakari Oramo (Prom 16). Last year, however,it was a rather different exhibition.
Leonard Slatkin used a multi-arranger version with the BBCSymphony Orchestra, throwing the work into a new light, each pictureinterpreted in a way quite different to that of Ravel. It would have made quite a spectacle to see the percussion, starting off with the first Promenade, which unfortunately loses its melodic thread before the brass restore it. Alexander Goehr’s scoring of the second Promenade works better, the violas suitably reflective in tone, coming as it does off the back of a big-boned Gnomus, intentionally cumbersome in Slatkin’s hands.
Overall the arrangements are a mixed bag. Baba-Yagabenefits greatly from Leopold Stokowski’s rough treatment, and the Henry Wood orchestration of the Polish Jews makes effective use of flutter tonguing in the woodwind. The Great Gate Of Kiev suffers, though, in Douglas Gamley’s overblown seven minute version, with a few extra musical links, a chorus and the organ. It spoils what went before, with the result that however enterprising the idea and however good the performance, this is a one-off with which to puzzle your friends. A curious clash of thirds in the last chord clinches it.
On the other side of the coin is a dazzling version of Respighi’sPines of Rome from Tadaaki Otaka. Respighi remains one of the most colourful orchestrators of the 20th century, and the Pines are one of his most celebrated works, evoking as they do realistic sound pictures of the pines of the Villa Borghese, the Janiculum, the Appian Way and the Catacombs.
After the brightness of the Villa Borghese, where French horn is in fine top register form, the work’s emotional heart lies in the Catacombs, and here Otaka gets a firm grip on the music, holding it back until the organ-powered explosion towards the end. It packs quite a punch and is extremely uplifting, subsiding only to lead the listener into the airy clarinet solos of the Janiculum, set by the composer in the light of a full moon and utilizing a recording of a nightingale. You can almost feel the heat in the Albert Hall as the bird sings, the audience held captive under its spell. The triumphant close brings an emphatic resolution and a deserved cheer from the Prommers – Respighi’s crowd pleaser has done it again.