Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (CD review)

Also, Night on the Bare Mountain; Khovanshchina Prelude. Ernest Ansermet, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Decca UCCD-7240 (Japan).

A few weeks before this writing a reader asked me if I had ever heard conductor Ernest Ansermet’s 1959 recording of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition because he thought it was quite good. Yes, I had, but I also had to admit it was many years earlier on an old London LP, and I hadn’t thought about it since then, probably because I didn’t care much for the sound. Anyway, I told him I’d try to get hold of the compact disc and give it another try. You’ll find the recording these days on a regular British CD from Decca, an Australian Eloquence CD from Decca, a remastered SACD from Esoteric, a remastered copy in various formats from HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers), and the one reviewed here from Japanese Decca.

As you know, Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) originally wrote his Pictures at an Exhibition as a piano suite in 1874. He called these vivid tone poems “sound pictures,” but they didn’t go very far with the public. Afterwards, several people orchestrated the suite, the most famous and most often recorded version being the 1922 one we have here by French composer Maurice Ravel. From that point, the music took off and became the basic-repertoire piece we know today. Anymore, because the Mussorgsky/Ravel work became so popular, almost every conductor and orchestra in the world have recorded it, so the competition is understandably intense, with recordings by Fritz Reiner (RCA/JVC, 1957), Riccardo Muti (EMI, 1979), and Lorin Maazel (Telarc/FIM, 1978) heading up my personal list of favorites. It was, therefore, the Reiner, Muti, and Maazel recordings to which I compared the Ansermet rendering.

Interestingly, the first thing one notices about the Ansermet recording is that his Suisse Romande orchestra sounds smaller than the others, almost chamber size. It's not really the size of the group or the quality of the venue, however, and Victoria Hall, Geneva is one of the finest recording locations in Europe. It's just that the Suisse Romande group doesn't have the big, plush, rich sonority of a Chicago or Philadelphia Orchestra, nor do they create quite so luxurious an impression.

The performance is another story. Ansermet handles the Promenades and gnome well, the visitor casually browsing the pictures, the misshapen dwarf extraordinary. The Old Castle has a proper mystery about it; the quarreling children are a bit tame but fun; the ox cart sounds appropriately lumbering; and the ballet of the "Unhatched Chicks" is cute. The two Polish Jews have their rich man-poor man chatter, which comes off with befitting personality; the marketplace is lively; and the catacombs are nicely spooky.

Then we come to the big finish, the "Hut of Baba Yaga," the witch flying through the air looking for human bones, and the "Great Gate of Kiev" with its majestic climax of processions and bells. Here, Ansermet is particularly effective, creating a truly grand, thrilling experience. It's a good rendition, overall, although I still wouldn't quite place it the category of a Reiner or a Muti.

The real highlight of the disc for me was the accompanying material, particularly Night on the Bare Mountain in the Rimsky-Korsakov arrangement. Ansermet takes his time to shape the music and make it both spiritual and scary. Lastly, the program closes with the Prelude  "Dawn over the River Moscow," which Ansermet shapes with beautiful, pictorial grace.

Decca producers James Walker and Michael Bremner and engineers Roy Wallace and James Lock made the recordings in Victoria Hall, Geneva, Switzerland in 1959 (Pictures) and 1964 (Bare Mountain, Khovanshchina). The sound is reasonably clean and clear for old recordings.  A bit of noise reduction has clarified the sonics in Pictures nicely, removing most (but not all) hiss without sacrificing much high-end extension. During quietest passages, one still notices the background noise, though, and as with most noise reduction, it has sucked out a touch of midrange air and life. It's little to fret over, though, and the quick transient attacks, wide dynamics, and general lucidity more than make up for it. When Decca first released the LP, I recall reading that it was something of a demonstration piece. Unfortunately, by the time I heard it on LP, it was in re-release and perhaps not so well pressed. Now we have it in pretty good shape, which most listeners will find pleasing enough. The sound in the two couplings, from about five years later, is noticeably quieter, smoother, and fuller.

Bottom line: It’s all a matter of personal taste, of course, but for my money, I’d rank my own favorite Pictures as those from Reiner (RCA/JVC) first for its characterful performance and vivid sound; Muti (EMI) second for its colorful realization and dynamic impact; Ansermet third (Decca) for its incisive interpretation and acceptably good sonics; and Maazel (Telarc or LIM) fourth for its expressive reading and wide-ranging audio.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

JJP

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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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Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa