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.
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: