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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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 Jon 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 of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings 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 they 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 Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, Goldpoint SA4 “passive preamp,” Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. 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 cell phone. 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.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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