Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (SACD review)

Also, Songs and Dances of Death; Night on Bare Mountain. Ferruccio Furlanetto, bass; Valery Gergiev, Mariinsky Orchestra. Mariinsky MAR0553.

It seems like I've reviewed an uncommon number Mussorgsky recordings lately, most of them of Pictures at an Exhibition. Understandably, it's a popular piece of music, here rendered by Maestro Valery Gergiev and his Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra (now known more simply as the Mariinsky Orchestra) in the popular orchestral version by Ravel. How popular is the piece? Mr. Gergiev himself has practically made a career of it, recording the work previously on various labels with the Vienna Philharmonic, the Kirov Orchestra, the London Philharmonic, and the Leningrad Philharmonic. Practice makes perfect, I suppose.

Anyway, you already know that the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) wrote Pictures at an Exhibition in 1874 originally as a piano suite. He called his little collection of tone poems "sound pictures," but they didn't catch on too well with the public until years later when several different people orchestrated the suite, the most famous and most often recorded arrangement being the 1922 version we have here by French composer Maurice Ravel. Mussorgsky based the movements of the suite on his musical impressions of paintings by his friend, the artist and architect Viktor Hartmann. The idea is that someone (the composer? the conductor? the listener?) is wandering through a picture gallery viewing the paintings, which the composer recreates in music, going so far as to give us a musical number, a "Promenade," to accompany our stroll from time to time.

Each conductor who approaches the music gives us his or her take on the paintings, adding nuances of phrasing, rubato, contrast, dynamics, pauses, etc., to recreate as vivid a picture in our mind of each painting. How well you like Gergiev's approach may depend upon how you view the pictures yourself from past experience. Among my own favorite recordings of the music are those by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony (RCA and JVC) and Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra (EMI), but everybody surely has a preferred account with which to compare any newcomer. For me, Gergiev's account holds up well enough interpretively, if not quite so vividly as my own favorites.

After many years of refining his reading of Mussorgsky, you'd think he'd have it down pat by now. And maybe that's the problem. The reading sounds a little too pat to me. Tempos are never too fast nor too slow. Shadings of character and description are never too extreme nor too restrained. Things are essentially just right. Too right. While there is hardly a thing to fault, the whole rendition does not seem to me as colorful, as exciting, as impressive, as graphically pictorial as it might be, could be, or should be. But I'm probably overreacting. Most listeners will find the performance flawless, which it no doubt is.

Gergiev's best characterized sections I thought were "Children quarreling after play," if more like a somewhat subdued bickering; "The ballet of unhatched chicks," always pleasant fun; "The Market at Limoges," full of energetic bustle; "Catacombs" and "With the dead" enveloped in dark mystery; and "The hut on fowl's legs," which takes off splendidly.

Valery Gergiev
The other segments, though, left me a tad unmoved, and the concluding "Great Gate of Kiev" seemed more than a touch underwhelming.

More to my liking were the accompanying pieces, the four-movement Songs and Dances of Death (orchestrated by Dimitri Shostakovich) and Night on Bare Mountain (in the composer's own final version). In the former, bass Ferruccio Furlanetto handles the pathos, tragedy, and drama of the music with deep sympathy. In the latter, Gergiev conjures up a genuinely frightening sense of menace and dread.

Producers James Mallinson (Songs and Dances) and Vladimir Ryabenko (Pictures, Bare Mountain), and engineers Jonathan Stokes and Neil Hutchinson (Songs and Dances) and Vladimir Ryanbenko (Pictures, Bare Mountain) recorded the music in the Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia between 2010 and 2014. They made it in DSD (Direct Stream Digital) for SACD (Super Audio CD) playback. But since this is a hybrid disc, the listener can play it back using either an SACD player for multichannel or two-channel stereo or a common CD player for regular two-channel. I listened in two-channel SACD from a Sony SACD player.

There is good clarity involved, the midrange free of edge, brightness, or dullness. Left-to-right stereo spread is also fine, with a realistic frequency balance and a moderate degree of depth perception and hall resonance. My only two areas of concern, at least initially, were with the dynamic range and the deep-bass response, both of which sounded a bit limited to me until the very end. Fortunately, they come to life when the music needs them most, in "The Hut" and "Great Gate." Overall, the sonics are fairly natural, and they probably reflect the sound of the Marinsky players pretty accurately in their own hall.


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