Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (CD review)

Also, Ravel: Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2; La Valse. Jean-Claude Casadesus, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Royal Philharmonic Masterworks RPM 28180.

Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) wrote one of the most vivid collections of tone poems (or "sound pictures") ever written, Pictures at an Exhibition, as a piano suite in 1874.  Later, various people orchestrated it, the most famous and oft-recorded version being the one we have here, arranged by French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) in 1922. Because of the popularity of the Mussorgsky/Ravel work, practically all the world's conductors and orchestras have performed it, and most of them have even recorded it. Competition is understandably fierce among current recordings, but there is always room for another good one.

Mussorgsky based the various segments of the suite on his musical impressions of paintings by his friend, the artist Victor Hartman. The idea is that you, the listener, are wandering through a gallery viewing the pictures, with the composer going so far as to give us a musical number, the "Promenade," for our stroll.

Maestro Jean-Claude Casadesus, an old hand at this sort of thing, handles the opening "Promenade" nicely, providing a leisurely gait through the gallery and past the first of the pictures, the grotesque "Gnome," properly bizarre. By the time we arrive at "The Old Castle" and "The Tuileries" gardens however, things get a little prosaic for Casadesus, followed by a slightly more heavy-handed than usual "Bydelo" oxcart. I suppose the latter tempo is appropriate to the slow pace of the cart, but it seems a little overdone and tends to bring the music to a standstill.

Fortunately, things take a turn for the better when Casadesus carries out the "Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks" successfully, the chicks scrambling about in their eggs and letting the music unfold naturally in a delightfully unforced manner. Following that, we get the two bickering old Jews, both in fine, contentious fettle.

The scene at "Limoges--The Market" is aptly full of bustle and activity, leading to its tonal opposite, the "Catacombs" beneath the city streets, where Casadesus does a commendable job conjuring up the sights of skulls and bones. This music leads inevitably to "With the Dead in a Dead Language," an equally creepy piece of business.

Mussorgsky and Ravel save their big guns for the last, "The Hut on Fowl's Legs" with its wonderfully spirited witch, and "The Great Gate of Kiev" with its power and majesty. Although I would liked to have heard Casadesus cut loose a bit more than he does, he animates the music reasonably well, even if he doesn't invest the closing passages with quite as much grandeur as I've heard from other conductors. Although this interpretation is more than satisfactory, for more thrilling accounts of the score, I would advise listening to the riveting version by Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra (EMI) or the incomparably colorful rendering by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony (RCA).

The program concludes with two fitting companions to the Mussorgsky piece in Ravel's own Daphnes et Chloe Suite No. 2 (1912) and La Valse (1920). Here, Casadesus actually appears more at home, especially in recreating the light, airy, evocative, sometimes swirling moods of the Daphnes ballet and the more caustic tempers of La Valse.

Produced in 2007 by the Royal Philharmonic and released in 2011 by Allegro Corp., the disc features very good sound, a part of the RPO's "Audiophile Collection." They tell us on the back cover of the case that it is a "20 bit digital recording, edited and mastered via 32 bit digital processing, recorded in high definition and playable on all CD players." Well, OK, that's a relief. The audio certainly displays a wide dynamic range and a strong impact, with fairly well-extended highs and lows. While the midrange is a tad soft and veiled and could be more open and transparent, it is, nevertheless, truthful enough in a real-life manner. What's more, there is a wide stereo spread and a good sense of hall ambience involved, with admirable front-to-back orchestral depth. In all, it's a good show.


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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.

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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