Lan Shui’s “Russian Spectacular”

cover BIS-2412

MUSSORGSKY: A Night on Bare Mountain. Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Ravel). BALAKIREV: Islamey (orch. Lyapunov). BORODIN: Polovtsian Dances* / Singapore Symphony Orch. *& Youth Choir; Lan Shui, cond / Bis SACD-2412

Normally, this is the kind of CD I totally ignore, not because I’m adverse to the Mussorgsky or Borodin pieces but because I’ve heard them ad infinitum. In addition to this, until two days ago I had never even heard of conductor Lan Shui. But YouTube videos of him conducting the Mahler Seventh Symphony and a complete concert performances of Carmen prodded me to investigate this disc.

I had two immediate reactions to the Night on Bare Mountain: first, that Bis’ highly-touted SACD sonics are absolutely perfect for this music—you hear things in the orchestration that you never quite heard before, or never heard so clearly—and second, that Shui, despite conducting with a lot of energy, is meticulously careful over all those little details in the music that other conductors skim over (even such renowned conductors as Stokowski). There’s also an odd ritard at the 5:12 mark that I’ve never heard before and, in a straightforward blockbuster like this, I’m not sure really belongs there, but for the most part Shui gives you your money’s worth of blockbuster playing…and yes, the sonics are simply spectacular. And if nothing else, Shui avoids “juicing up” the scores with more colorful orchestration as Stokie did.

The slow finale to this piece is played very slowly, and although I found it atmospheric I am again not so sure that it fits the character of the music. By and large, Russian conductors do not romanticize their native music, and as a rule I am averse to slow performances of almost anything. (My lifelong motto has been, “Watery-eyed ascetics do not impress me.”) But I guess it gets by.

Shui is also a bit slow in the “Promenades” of Pictures at an Exhibition, and moreover phrases the music with a more legato feel than I’m used to hearing. Apparently he has a Romantic soul and can’t help showing it off, but in those pieces that call for energy, such as “Gnomus,” “Tuileries,” “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” and the last two pieces, he certainly has it. But I’m going to say something that may startle you and perhaps him as well: Russian music calls for more direct, from-the-gut playing. Listen to Yuri Temirkanov’s recording if you want an idea of what I mean (or even Toscanini’s old 1953 hi-fi spectacular version). Nonetheless, Shui’s ultra-legato phrasing works very well in “The Old Castle” and “Catacombs,” and the Singapore Symphony is clearly a first-rate orchestra.

Perhaps I’m reading more into this than is actually there, but in “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle,” the way the trumpet is phrased put me more in mind of Chinese music than of Russian…it has to do with the accenting of the notes on the rhythm. So perhaps it might be more accurate to describe this CD as a “Euro-Asian Spectacular,” combining the Eastern European aesthetics of Russia with the more Asian aesthetics of China. Regardless, I guarantee that you’ll find the music phrased differently throughout this suite than in any other performance you are familiar with, and you may very well like it even more than I did.

As I mentioned earlier, however, the “Hut on Fowl’s Legs (Baba Yaga)” and “Great Gate at Kiev” are simply stupendous and will pin you to the wall. Bis’ SACD sound gives tremendous depth and fullness to the orchestra despite the surface excitement.

I was only previously familiar with Balakirev’s Islamey as a piano piece, and a technically difficult one at that, but apparently Lyapunov orchestrated it. Here we have a blending, so to speak, of three cultures: Middle Eastern, Russian and, via Shui’s rhythmic accents and phrasing, Asian, but I liked it very much. Last up are Borodin’s famous Polovtsian Dances, which Shui takes at mostly faster-than-normal tempos. This is, for me, the greatest performance of this music I’ve ever heard, and if you think the SACD sonics were great in Pictures, you simply won’t believe your ears in this work. In addition, the Singapore Symphony Youth Choir is absolutely stunning.

I’m not sure if you will read this as a negative review or simply a mixed one, although the latter was my intent. Shui is obviously a first-rate conductor and the Singapore Symphony one of the world’s first-class orchestras, but for better or worse I have my own standards in this music in regards to phrasing and tempi. Sometimes Shui hits the bull’s eye, and sometimes he skirts along the edges of the music, but one thing is certain. You won’t hear performances like this anywhere else.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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