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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To listen to 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.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa