Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (CD review)

Plus Borodin:  Symphony No. 2 and Polovtsian Dances. Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.  EMI 50999 5 00273 2 3.

Needless to say, in order to bring off Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition successfully, a conductor must exercise a good deal of imagination if he isn't to sound like every other conductor who has ever recorded the work.  You would think that if anybody could pull it off, it might be Simon Rattle.  But try as I might in repeat listening, I could not quite get into the music on this EMI disc of music with the Berlin Philharmonic.

I'm not entirely sure what went wrong here, either with the conductor or with me.  I found Rattle rushed when he should have been descriptive and almost lackadaisical when he should have been vigorous.  The "Marketplace," for instance, seems more hurried than bustling with energy, his "Baba-Yaga" witch more earthbound than scary, and his "Great Gate of Kiev" more solemn than grand.  He follows this with a reading of Borodin's Symphony No. 2 that sounds positively leaden in places, the disc concluding with probably the best of the lot, Borodin's "Polovtsian Dances" from Prince Igor in which Rattle does convey an impressively seductive tone.

But for comparison purposes I used Reiner (RCA) and Muti (EMI) for the Pictures and found both of those performances more colorful; Martinon (Decca) for the Borodin Symphony and found it more vital; and Beecham (EMI) for the "Polovtsian Dances" and appreciated its chorus, which Rattle omits.

The sound, I read on the back of the jewel box, EMI recorded live in July, 2007.  I always have to wonder if the quality of a live recording has anything to do with my appreciation of a performance because, generally speaking, I don't care for live recordings.  In this case, the recording has an oddly drab sound, while at the same time being well balanced, with a fine, well-controlled bass impact.  At least we're spared any audience applause (or any audience noises of any kind for that matter).  The sonics just seem flat, somehow, especially when compared to the recordings I listed above, some of which are almost fifty years older than this one.  They all seemed more alive to my ear.

Another oddity:  The booklet insert that came with the copy of the disc EMI sent me is entirely in German.  No English translation.  Don't know why.  Also, there are no timings listed anywhere, not in the booklet and not on the back cover of the case.  I have no idea what the EMI folks are up to here.  Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic should be the current jewel in their crown, and it seems to me that unless they sensed something wrong with this issue, they might have done more in promoting it.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa