Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (SACD review)

Also, Night on Bald Mountain; Khovanshchina; Borodin: In the Steppes of Central Asia. Leonard Slatkin, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 4004.

As you know, Modest Mussorgsky wrote his Pictures at an Exhibition in 1874 as a collection of piano pieces, each short work describing a different painting or drawing by the composer’s friend, Viktor Hartmann. Mussorgsky’s idea was to create a series of tone poems as a tribute to the artist by depicting impressions of ten of Hartmann’s paintings hanging in a gallery and being viewed by passersby. Mussorgsky’s music never really impressed the public, however, until Maurice Ravel orchestrated them many years later in the form we know them here.

Maestro Leonard Slatkin and his St. Louis players brought these oft-recorded works to disc in 1975, but I wish he had taken more time to recreate the color and character of each portrait. As it is, he seemed to spend more time trying to elaborate on the beauty of the music rather than interpret the individual peculiarities of the paintings. The various “Promenades,” for instance, seem hurried, as though the visitors to the gallery were rushing to find an exit; the “Ballet of the Chicks” doesn’t seem too much different from “Children Quarreling at Play”; the “Hut on Fowl’s Legs” doesn’t have as much energy as I’d like; and “The Great Gate of Kiev” seems to lack necessary grandeur. For a definitive rendering, compare Fritz Reiner (RCA/JVC) and his Chicago Orchestra, where every miniature has its own unique and vivid distinctions.

The Khovanshchina excerpts and Night on Bald Mountain come off better, with a little more flair. Best of all, however, is Alexander Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia, which Slatkin draws out beautifully, conveying a real sense of being in a separate place and time.

Vox originally made the recordings in two-channel stereo and four-channel quadraphonics.  Mobile Fidelity remastered them in their Ultradisc UHR GAIN 2 series, on two layers of a hybrid SACD, meaning you can play it in stereo on a regular CD player or in discrete four channel on a Super Audio CD player. In two-channel SACD stereo, as I listened to it, the Mussorgsky sounds velvety smooth and rich, with plenty of hall resonance, maybe even a little too much.

Bass is strong, too, as is treble when present. On the other hand, the Borodin sounds even better, slightly clearer and more transparent. I wondered about this and then noticed that the original cover jacket for the Mussorgsky LP lists only the Mussorgsky works, not the Borodin. There is no mention in Mo-Fi’s booklet, but it led me to wonder if Vox hadn’t recorded the Borodin at another time and place. I don’t know. But it does sound very marginally better than the Mussorgsky, which in its own right sounds pretty good.

I would guess that this release may sound best played through a dedicated SACD system in multichannel rather than the ordinary two-channel stereo I heard. Although I wasn’t bowled over by Slatkin’s rather conservative interpretations, I’d say if you have a multichannel SACD system, you might want to try and sample the sound. 

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa