Alongside such works as Saint-Saens' "Danse Macabre", and Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique", Modest Mussorgsky's "A Night On Bald Mountain" is one of the best-known works to delve into the world of the macabre. But what is not so well known is the fact that this "musical painting", as the composer called it, was worked at in four different permutations, both during the composer's life, and long after he had died. Three of these are purely orchestral in nature: the arrangement made by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov that the vast majority of the music-listening public has most often heard; the arrangement by Leopold Stokowski for the final segment of Disney's 1940 animated classic FANTASIA (which segues into Franz Schubert's beloved "Ave Maria"); and the composer's own extremely primitive original orchestration. It is this latter one that is the centerpiece of this 1994 Deutsche Grammophon recording by Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.
Whereas most recordings of "Night" utilize the re-orchestration that Rimsky-Korsakov made, supposedly at the composer's suggestion (with its tranquil conclusion, after all that nightmarism), Abbado, on his second recording of the work, has chosen to stick with the composer's own version; and although exceptionally primitive, it can be argued that this work went a long way to laying the groundwork for Igor Stravinsky in the first fifteen years of the 20th century ("The Firebird", and, especially, "The Rite Of Spring" may owe quite a lot to this work). It is an interesting concept that Abbado and the Berliners float here; and the recording is made even more interesting by the presence of four of the composer's works for chorus and orchestra: "The Destruction Of Sennacherib"; "Salammbo"; "Oedipus In Athens", and "Joshua." These are works that may owe a debt to the short works for chorus and orchestra that Brahms had done (e.g. "Alto Rhapsody", "Nanie", etc.), but which are nowhere near as well known, for the simple reason that they are in Russian. Abbado concludes this recording with the composer's famous piano piece "Pictures At An Exhibition" in the orchestral transcription by Maurice Ravel that, in spite of many other competing versions (including Stokowski's), still remains the one the public wants to hear the most.
Because Abbado and the Berliners went and did the choral version of "Night On Bald Mountain" for Sony two years later, and because this particular version of the work had been recorded by Abbado back in the early 1980s for RCA with the London Symphony Orchestra, one can legitimately wonder if Mussorgsky is to Abbado what Mahler was for, say, Leonard Bernstein: a personal obsession. This is probably far-fetched, but it's then better to say that Abbado had a knack for delving into very little known aspects of Mussorgsky's compositional output to find things of value, things that, while they may be upwards of a century and a half old by this time, still feel new. Such is the case on this recording, which is why close attention should be paid to it.