Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (CD review)

Also, Night on Bare Mountain; Boris Godunov Symphonic Synthesis; Entr’acte to Khovanshchina. Symphonic transcriptions by Leopold Stokowski. Oliver Knussen, the Cleveland Orchestra. DG B0002123-02.

Most folks are probably familiar with Maurice Ravel’s orchestration of Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s piano portraits, Pictures at an Exhibition, but fewer people have probably heard Leopold Stokowski’s orchestration of them. Of course, we all know Stokowski’s rendering of Night on Bare Mountain from having seen Fantasia, and if that kind of thing appeals to you, then this disc might be right up your alley.

Critics often complained about Stokowski (and still do, long after his death) for his glamorizing of classical music, either by changing the music itself or by interpreting it differently than other conductors. Be that as it may, the fellow had (and still has) quite a following of loyal fans. Indeed, much of the man’s recorded work still impresses me, and I can understand why so many listeners adore him. This disc of Stokowski’s orchestral transcriptions of several Mussorgsky works will either convert you or send you packing.

Stokowski made his version of Pictures at an Exhibition in 1939, more than a decade and a half after Ravel did his familiar reworking. My first and lasting impression of Stokowski’s version was one of greater fluency, greater poetry, and greater romanticism than the Ravel orchestration. Stokowski utilizes a lot more lush strings, which leads to much of this feeling. However, on most recordings it’s hard to tell how much of this effect is the result of Stokowski’s orchestration, or, in the case of this recording, the result of the Cleveland Orchestra and Maestro Oliver Knussen.

Anyway, the combination of Stokowski, the Cleveland players, Maestro Knussen, and the DG engineers provides us with an ultrasmooth, ultrasophisticated Pictures, much different from the Ravel arrangements I’ve gotten used to from the likes of Reiner (RCA), Muti (EMI), Maazel (Telarc), and Ansermet (Decca). In the process of refining the score, Stokowski and company render it less volatile, less explosive, and, well, less colorful. In fact, much of the color seems washed out of the work compared to the aforementioned renditions. However, the listener might find “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs” fascinating for its herky-jerky dynamism, and certainly “The Great Gate of Kiev” comes across with a splendid grandeur.

More interesting for me was the shorter Entr’acte to Khovanshchina, which is direct, to the point, and incisive. Maybe it’s too short, though, for its own good. Knussen handles the other works, Night on Bare Mountain and the Boris Godunov Symphonic Synthesis quite well, too, although I doubt many potential buyers are looking just for these things.

I also wonder how much the DG engineers are responsible for the music’s smoothness, to the extent of having little apparent bite. The sound is so polished and comfortable and so multi-miked, one is in danger of calling it mood music. Yet the sound does not lack a deep bass or a strong dynamic impact. Curious. I think some listeners will respond to it quite favorably, especially if they have become tired of listening to the hard, shrill, bright sound found on some CDs. I didn’t find DG’s sound at all objectionable; I just didn’t find it particularly natural or realistic.

To listen to several brief excerpts from this album, click here:

JJP

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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 ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine 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