Miguel Harth-Bedoya Takes a Different Look at Mussorgsky & Prokofiev

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MUSSORGSKY-GORCHAKOV: Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Gorchakov). PROKOFIEV: Cinderella: Selections / Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra; Miguel Harth-Bedoya, cond / Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra Records (available from the FWSO website or as digital download as of June 1, 2018) (live performances: February 2-4, 2018 [Mussorgsky], April 7-9, 2017 [Prokofiev])

This is a different sort of recording of the well-known Mussorgsky Pictures and the not-so-well-known Prokofiev Cinderella. Conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya has chosen, in the first, the lesser-known but more distinctly Russian orchestration of Sergei Gorchakov, which as he puts it in the liner notes, keeps in “the so-called ‘wrong notes and rhythms’ from the original piano score, as well as including all the movements.” This version was also recorded by conductor Grzegorz Nowak with the Royal Philharmonic. The orchestration is darker, with more explosive moments and less textural subtlety than Ravel’s, and it does indeed present us with a very Slavic feeling without resorting to the kind of tawdry effects in the more famous (but, for me, less palatable) Shostakovich orchestration.

Harth-Bedoya presents us with a powerful, fairly straightforward reading of the score. He is not without delicacy when called for, i.e. in “Cum mortuis in lingua mortua,” but the overall tautness of his reading has less flexibility than even the very powerful versions of the Ravel version by such masters of orchestral texture as Rodziński and Toscanini. That being said, it is not out of line with the kind of straightforward conducting one heard from Yevgeny Svetlanov or Kiril Kondrashin. It’s certainly exciting, to say the least.

In his own arrangement of selected numbers from Prokofiev’s Cinderella, Harth-Bedoya tries to tell the story in a more linear fashion than the composer’s own suites (three of them, Opp. 107-109). As he puts it, “I selected movements from the original ballet score to recreate the tale of Cinderella in chronological order. Each of the three acts help maintain the arch of the story: act one takes place at Cinderella’s home and ends with her departure to the ball. Act two takes place at the prince’s palace where he and Cinderella fall in love. This act ends with the fabled 12 strikes of midnight. Finally, act three, back at Cinderella’s home brings the reunion of the lovers bringing the end of the ballet.”

Perhaps because I was not familiar with this score (though I know other Prokofiev ballets, The Prodigal Son and Romeo and Juliet being my two favorites), I was really taken with his reading here. This may also be due to the fact that the music itself is gentler in nature and less given to smash-crash-bang as the Mussorgsky is, and as I said, Harth-Bedoya has a good feel for lyrical episodes. And, of course, Prokofiev’s more modern musical language, quite subtle at times, adds to the music’s charm. Yes, I still had the feeling that some of this music could have been performed more subtly than it is here, but giving a bit of tautness and musical “muscle” certainly reveals more of the score’s structure. Only in the “Shawl Dance” did I feel that he was rushing things a bit too much, creating surface excitement without capturing the music’s evident charm. Cinderella is really rushed through her episodes here…apparently trying to get everything in before the clock strikes midnight!

The orchestra plays very well technically throughout, with flawless technique and a rich orchestral blend, but I was a bit disappointed by the somewhat opaque sound, which I felt cut back too much on the brightness of the music. By boosting the treble by 3 db, I heard things that were inaudible otherwise, such as light cymbal work and inner wind figures, which Harth-Bedoya clearly brought out in performance. Whether this was due to the microphone placement or post-recording mixing, I don’t know, but I have the feeling he wanted these things heard or he wouldn’t have lavished such care on these small but important details. The brass and winds, in particular, benefit from the brightening of sound as well, giving the music a more Russian sound profile in the tradition of Svetlanov. This is particularly noticeable in the section of the Prokofiev suite titled “Midnight”—a most ominous and crashing coming of midnight at that! Had I been Cinderella and heard a clock strike midnight this way, I’d have fled for my very life! Yet even in the soft wind passages of “The Morning After the Ball,” greater clarity of texture is important. Astringent winds were always a key feature of Prokofiev’s orchestral works.

Overall, then, an interesting album for the conductor’s choice of orchestration in the first work and sequencing in the second. I have a feeling that other conductors, hearing this release, would possibly want to opt for his arrangement of the latter score, which I found to be musically quite effective.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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