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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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.

Contact Information

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