Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (HQCD review)

Calvin Hampton, organ. HDTT HQCD281.

Originally, Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) wrote his Pictures at an Exhibition in 1874 as a collection of piano pieces, each of the short movements describing a different painting or drawing by his friend, Viktor Hartmann. The composer’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. All the same, Mussorgsky’s piano music never really impressed the public; then, many years later, Maurice Ravel orchestrated the music, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Over the years, we’ve had any number of good piano recordings of the work, but it wasn’t until the early Seventies that church organist Calvin Hampton transcribed the piano pieces for organ and recorded them for Musical Heritage Society. Since then, we have gotten a number of organ recordings. Still, it was Hampton’s controversial organ recording that people probably knew best, a recording as highly praised for its sound as criticized for its interpretation. Then, in 1982, recording engineer John Profitt heard that Hampton was performing the Mussorgsky piece on the organ in Rochester, NY, and figured he and his team could perhaps, in his words, “do Hampton’s masterful transcription better justice” than the earlier recording had. Thus, the impetus for the present recording, remastered here by HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers).

I suspect that listeners may react to this HDTT remaster much as they did to Mr. Hampton’s earlier MHS recording, that is, with as much admiration as disdain. Let’s begin with Hampton’s organ transcription and his performance of it. On the plus side, Hampton’s transcription is very straightforward and unadorned, and that’s the way he plays it. You won’t find any ornamentation or flourishes here, just the notes of Mussorgsky’s music plain and simple. On the minus side, Hampton’s transcription is very straightforward and unadorned, and that’s the way he plays it. You won’t find any ornamentation or flourishes here, just the notes of Mussorgsky’s music plain and simple. In other words, everyone who hears the performance will respond to it differently. Those who like their music simple and unmannered will probably find great comfort in what Hampton provides. Those who prefer more character, more passion, a more individualized interpretation will probably find Hampton’s rending rather sterile.

Personally, I found Hampton’s realization of Mussorgsky’s tone poems somewhat lacking in color, in the drama behind the pictures. The organist appears more interested in what the music sounds like than in what the music represents. As a consequence, the performance seems to me too uncompromising for its own good, too devoid of life. Mussorgsky created little works of art, after all, to depict, well, little works of art. I’d have preferred the musician playing them to have brought those works of art more vividly to life. But, who knows, maybe I just don’t have enough imagination; for other listeners, Hampton’s readings may reveal a wealth of imagery.

By the time the second “Promenade” rolls around, however, Hampton has warmed more to his subject. “The Old Castle” is appropriately eerie, “Tuileres” sounds charming, and “Bydlo” lumber along satisfactorily. “The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” comes to life more than almost anything else on the program, “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle” argue convincingly, and “The Market at Limoges” seems lively enough. So, while Hampton doesn’t exactly light up the house with his playing, he is more than competent. It’s in the final four movements that I thought he lost some enthusiasm. “The Catacombs” and “Con mortuis mortua” seemed fairly perfunctory, and the big finish with “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs” and “The Great Gate of Kiev” haven’t the impact or splendor I expected, the former seeming rushed and the latter a bit shaky.

HDTT transferred the music from a 15ips 2-track master tape, recorded live in 1982 at the Ashbury First Methodist Church, Rochester, NY. Here, too, in the matter of sound quality we may find contention among listeners, with audiophiles perhaps loving it best of all and ordinary listeners bewildered at what the fuss is all about. Let me explain.

The remastering sounds quite clean and quite clear transferred to an HQCD as I heard it. Transient response is outstanding, with every note exceptionally taut, beginning and ending in a thoroughly well-defined manner. The mikes pick up very few hall reflections, so the organ notes have a kind of clinical precision about them. There is good depth in the hall, though, and we appear to be hearing the organ from a comfortable distance. There are some very deep lows involved, again very well controlled. Nevertheless, without out much hall reverberation, the bass may not seem as superficially impressive as the woolly low end we too often encounter in these affairs. More important, absent a severe mid-bass rise in the response, the rest of the frequency spectrum appears all the more transparent

Two things did annoy me slightly, however: Hampton’s arrangement and playing style occasionally elicit what I can only describe as a few squawks from the organ; they strike an odd note I did not find particularly attractive. Then there is the matter of the minor but noticeable audience noise, especially conspicuous between movements and during quieter passages. I could have done without it, along with the inevitable burst of applause at the end.

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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