IPO honors Mussorgsky with a perfect performance of a Russian original

The evening continued with four poems by Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov as set to music by Mussorgsky and sung in the original Russian by mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova.

(photo credit: MARCO BORGGREVE)
Works by Modest Mussorgsky
Stanislav Kochanovsky conducting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
Charles Bronfman Auditorium
February 15
One of the famed five composers who sought to bring Russia’s unique spirit into music, Modest Mussorgsky might be best known today for the glorious 1941 animated adaptation to his work Night on Bald Mountain, featured in the Disney film Fantasia. The other four, Balakirev, Cui, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov, appreciated his massive talent but were not always on good terms with him. Balakirev refused to conduct Night on Bald Mountain. This led to the work only being performed after Mussorgsky died in 1881. The version used in Fantasia was performed under conductor Leopold Stokowski.
It was with this well-known work that Russian conductor Stanislav Kochanovsky began his masterful performance on Saturday evening as he led the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in a crisp, delightful exploration of the tragic composer. This was the first time Kochanovsky performed here and one can only hope he’ll return again and again. His presence on the stage is electric and the relation he seems to have with the musicians is uncanny: a gesture, and the music swells, a flicker, and it rises, with controlled, precise movement and without a hair out of place. 
Night on Bald Mountain is a dark work, and the version Kochanovsky chose was the original one from 1867, the same one Balakirev rejected, which was later adapted by Rimsky-Korsakov, and later, by Stokowski. We might have begun the evening in Tel Aviv, but when Kochanovsky was done we were after a Witches’ Sabbath as imagined by a dark, troubled genius. 
The evening continued with four poems by Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov as set to music by Mussorgsky and sung in the original Russian by mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova.
Thanks to the translations by Sergey Rybin and Greg Kaplan, those who purchased programs could read a tri-lingual booklet and follow the plot, so to speak. The art song, unless one happens to be fluent in several major European languages, is not easy to appreciate without some help.
Like the famed five, Kutuzov sought to Russify culture by introducing the Russian peasant and landscapes into verse. His poems, in Songs and Dances of Death, all depict the triumph of the Grim Reaper. He snatches a babe from its mother; lulls a drunk old man to succumb to hypothermia; and taking the form of a general, boasts to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice on both sides, “Life has made you quarrel, I have reconciled you!”
ACCORDING TO musicologist Palina Kedem, a musical phrase from this tragic work can be found in the musical adaptation by Shmuel Fershko to the poem Bab El Wad, originally written about the fierce fighting that took place in 1948. This sheds new light on the work seen by many as a canonical piece of Israeli music. 
Gubavona was majestic and her mastery of the work absolute. Her performance was a skilled shift between the personas speaking: death, a sick young woman, a mother and a general, with each voice speaking with his or her unique emotional range. The audience showered her with applause and she was asked to return, and return again, to take her bow.
Death was never far from Mussorgsky’s mind. After his friend, painter Viktor Hartmann, passed away prematurely in 1873, he complained in a letter that it was unfair that “a dog, a horse or a mouse go on living when beings such as Hartmann die.”
Honored in 1874 with a showing of more than 400 of his works at the Saint Petersburg Academy of Fine Art, the loss and paintings inspired Mussorgsky to create Pictures at an Exhibition. The music describes a journey between 16 different paintings with each painting being a musical work on its own. The majority of the works on display in 1874 are lost to us now.
These include Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle, a work depicting the conversation of two Jews Hartmann painted while in Poland.
One man was fat and wealthy and the other thin and poor. Mussorgsky decided to use a trumpet to capture the quality of the lesser well-off man appealing to his friend.
Another painting, Catacombs, did survive and marks a shift from the world of travel and things to the realm of the dead. With the Dead in a Dead Language starts the emotional climax of the work.
In his own notes, Mussorgsky said that his friend’s “creative spirit guides me into a place full of skulls. He calls on them and they glow in the dark.” Like Night on a Bald Mountain, which ends with the ring of the church bells and the break of dawn, this work ends with The Great Gate of Kiev, leading us into the hope that while death always waits, some things the human spirit creates are eternal.
The audience lavished praise on Kochanovsky, who returned twice to take a bow and honor the IPO for a perfect performance of a Russian original.