Kristjan Randalu/Dave Liebman: Mussorgsky Pictures Revisited


Although Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-81) is best remembered for Night on Bald Mountain and Pictures at an Exhibition, the latter has had the more interesting afterlife, inspiring arrangements from such wide-ranging artists as prog-rockers Emerson, Lake & Palmer, German metal band Mekong Delta and Japanese electronic pioneer Tomita. Yet this duo of soprano saxophonist Dave Liebman and pianist Kristjan Randalu presents more than a recasting of the Mussorgsky mold, instead a fresh landscape irrigated by channeling water from the source material. Case in point is the jaunting “Promenade,” which opens in straightforward territory but which in subsequent iterations (five in all) draws out hidden messages.

Liebman understands how to turn even the most familiar melodies inside out without losing their skin in the process. His tone is as flexible and colorful as ever, navigating every twist of “Les Tuileries” and “The Market” with characteristic attention to detail. The physicality of his artistry is most obvious in “Ballet of the Unhatched Chickens,” as also in his bluesy handling of “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle,” the latter a veiled stand-alone among extroverted peers. Randalu, for his part, is as comfortable laying foundations as he is building on top of them. Whether orienting his compass to the lodestar of “Bydło” or jazzing up “Baba Yaga” with exuberance, he makes sure that every wisp of proverbial smoke fulfills its promise of fire. As a unit, he and Liebman find profoundest coherence in “Il Vecchio Castello,” of which they make an understated dirge.

And so, by the time we reach the farewell of “The Heroic Gate,” we are confident in having been somewhere. This is, of course, the whole point of Mussorgsky’s greatest hit: to place us in that gallery so that we may feel the colors of every scene as if they were our own.

(This review originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra: A Welcome Invitation

Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra
Ignat Solzhenitsyn, Conductor
October 7, 2013
Bailey Hall, Cornell University
8:00 pm

The Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra knows how to fill a hall both with people and with sound. Although it boasts a long history, during Monday night’s performance all one could think about were the precious moments at hand. Guest conductor Ignat Solzhenitsyn held the podium like a controlled tempest, injecting just the sort of energy expected of the all-Russian program. The palette at his disposal was accordingly rich with contrast. Smooth yet sometimes-rustic strings meshed with a superb wind section (the true litmus test of any such orchestra), while clarion brass mediated between the two with equal shares of rough and smooth.

Indeed, brass was foremost on the menu in the appetizer: Night on Bald Mountain. Modest Mussorgsky’s 1867 symphonic poem, the first of two in the concert’s first half, was originally titled St. John’s Night on the Bare Mountain and intended to evoke a gathering of witches on that same pagan holiday. Performed in full only posthumously, it was a relative outlier on the concert stage until it famously appeared in Disney’s Fantasia during the penultimate scene of unrequited souls. Such associations remain glued to the piece’s architecture and only served to heighten the opportunity to experience it in person, allowing concertgoers to indulge in their own associations. Its spiraling brilliance and instantly recognizable theme shook Bailey Hall to its core with all the threat of the tornado watch that had been hovering over Ithaca that same afternoon. It was tempting to hold fast to the piece’s backstory, but as the music went on, its motifs growing more distorted with every iteration, it begged to be taken on its own terms.

The same could be said about the rendition of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead. Penned in 1909, it was inspired by an engraved reproduction of Arnold Böcklin’s eponymous 1886 painting. The result was a dreamlike concert experience. What became obvious hearing it live, and in such capable hands, was that Rachmaninoff had successfully added a Z-axis of time to the painting’s X and Y of image and atmosphere. The end effect was, despite the dynamic curve, quiet resignation. One must know unrest, it seemed to say, in order to seek rest eternal.

The concert’s pre-intermission programming could not have been accidental, for Rachmaninoff himself conducted the 1909 world premiere of Isle of the Dead in Moscow alongside his Second Symphony and Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. More novel, perhaps, was pairing these with the Fifth Symphony (1937) of Dmitri Shostakovich. One can hardly walk through writings about Shostakovich without stepping in the oppressive regime under which he lived. To be sure, he completed his Fifth at the peak of Stalinist Terror, thereby marking his return to the concert hall after a period of creative lockdown (Stalin had denounced the composer as a kink in the machine of Soviet spirit). Musicologists continue to hone from these details a dual-edged sword: Was Shostakovich being patriotic or snide? Does the piece leave us with hope or cynicism?

Yet hearing it “cold,” as it were, one begins to appreciate the variety of signatures in the opening Moderato alone. From the call-and-response of its awakening to its massive punctuation marks toward closure, there was much to admire in being face to face with this symphony. The MTO heightened the Mahlerian qualities of the second movement, a caricature of waltzes boasting many thematic handoffs. The third movement—forever one of the deepest statements in all of 20th century music—was all the more a requiem. It spun a false security by means of string-heavy, cornucopian pathos and haunting tremolos before the concluding Allegro burst onto the scene like a frantic mother in search of a lost child. With sweeping panache and urgency, it brought about triumph with sarcastic grandeur.

Whatever anyone might think about the politics surrounding and embedded in Shostakovich’s score, the MTO reminded listeners that such music is ultimately about the tension of extremes. One must therefore take caution in folding so much moroseness into the batter of Russian music. Such a proposition, of course, softens when we learn that even Igor Stravinsky called Rachmaninoff “six feet two inches of Russian gloom,” but anecdotal and circumstantial evidence do not a lasting message make. Lost in all of this is the music itself, sitting like Rodin’s thinker on an unwavering question: How long before a piece of music can be divorced from the context of its creation and take on a life of its own? Regardless of the answer, this performance was further proof that the power of orchestral music lies not in the strength of its ideological underpinnings, but in the immediacy of its invitation.

(See this article as it originally appeared in the Cornell Daily Sun.)