Mussorgsky's "St. John's Night on Bald Mountain," played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic led by Esa-Pekka Salonen on Thursday at the Hollywood Bowl, is not exactly the "Night on Bald Mountain" beloved by fans of the 1940 Disney film "Fantasia."
Heresy though it is to admit in these purist times, I wish it were.
"St. John's" is the original 1867 version, which Mussorgksy revised twice (for an abortive opera project in 1874 and for inclusion in his final 1880 opera "Sorochinsky Fair") and which didn't surface until 1968. Until then, the world knew Rimsky-Korsakov's heavily edited version, which was further tweaked by Stokowski for the Disney film.
Though opening in much the same way and full of familiar material, the original version starts and stops, meanders, winds down, sounds formless and directionless. The composer was proud of the piece, yet even he changed it in hopes of getting it performed.
The best parts, brief as they are, are those moments of genuine Slavic accent and feeling, which Rimsky smoothed out or Europeanized and which reached profound expression in Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" and "Khovanshchina."
And it was precisely such elements of Slavic soul that were missing in Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto as played by Salonen and the 21-year-old virtuoso Julian Rachlin.
After some initial moments of pitch inaccuracy and reticence, Rachlin played with admirable facility and lamentable absence of mature expressivity. He had a poised, lyrical tone that he put to limited pastoral use, though he turned flashy enough in the bravura passages. Salonen accompanied with dutiful, seemingly disinterested attention.
Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du Printemps" is a Salonen specialty, and it is impossible to hear him conducting the work, as he did to close the program, without apprehending some new aspect of the score--a new element or a new juxtaposition or relationship among parts.
This comes at a price. There is extraordinary clarity, transparency and balance, but not much mania or tension. The Philharmonic played brilliantly, although the muted trumpets in the Introduction to Part Two were inaudible above the ambient noise.