Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (CD review)

Also, Night on the Bare Mountain (original and Rimsky-Korsakov versions) and several shorter works. Theodore Kuchar, National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine. Naxos 8.555924.

This is another one of those modestly priced Naxos releases that helps define the word "bargain." To begin with, it will delight hi-fi buffs because the sound is exceptionally clean. Not only are the dynamics strong and the frequency response wide, there is virtually no bass hangover to cloud the midrange. This can be a blessing and a curse, naturally, depending on your standpoint. The transparency of the sound is superb, but without the bass resonance, there isn't a lot of concert hall feel to the music. An audiophile friend of mine once told me he didn't like attending live orchestral events because the sound of real music was too muddy for him; it sounded better in his home. He'd like this disc. I, on the other hand, prefer the added warmth of a little bass overhang and hall reverberation. Personal taste.

Nevertheless, there's no denying Maestro Kuchar's disc sounds great and, more important, its musical content will satisfy a lot of people because there's something here for everyone. The first two items are Night on the Bare Mountain, performed first as originally composed by Modest Mussorgsky and then as later reorchestrated by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Although most of us have multiple copies of the familiar Rimsky-Korsakov version, the original is harder to find, the best one still being with David Lloyd-Jones and the London Philharmonic on an old Philips album. But to have both versions on one disc along with the Pictures at an Exhibition is somewhat unique. This was the first time I'd ever actually listened to the two versions of Bare Mountain side by side, and it amazed me how different they are and how much I had underappreciated the composer's original version. Mussorgsky's view is much the coarser, more awkward, of course, but considering the content of the tone poem--a Witches' Sabbath, after all--it works pretty well.

Theodore Kuchar
In addition to Bare Mountain and Pictures, the disc contains two short pieces, the "Hopak" from Sorochintsy Fair and "Golitsin's Exile" from Khovanchchina, both of them done up by Kuchar in fine, vivid, vivacious style.

The Pictures at an Exhibition, as you know, is a series of musical paintings, and Maestro Kuchar does well with them, each episode except the last being quite well characterized. I thought the "Great Gate of Kiev" a trifle underpowered, but the interpretation may have suffered from what was for it an unfortunate comparison: Just about the time I first listened this 2003 Naxos disc, I had just listened to Fritz Reiner's celebrated RCA Living Stereo account with the Chicago Symphony on what was then a newly remastered (and very costly) JVC XRCD compact disc. The old Reiner recording is a marvel of technical accomplishment and musical know-how that clearly upstaged the new entry in every way, albeit at almost five times the cost on JVC and with no fillers.

Nevertheless, Kuchar's account, especially in the early going, holds its own against almost any competition and should please practically anyone who doesn't already have a favorite Pictures. For the money, one can hardly go wrong.


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

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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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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa