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Vox originally made the recordings in two-channel stereo and four-channel quadraphonics.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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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