Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) has been an excellent work for the recording medium because it easily demonstrates what most music lovers and hi-fi buffs alike appreciate most. It has all the tonal color, orchestral virtuosity, and aural dynamics to keep everybody happy. Conductor Valery Gergiev must realize this because he has recorded it at least four times, and this 2003 release with the Vienna Philharmonic manages to satisfy most of the criteria for good music listening. Whether Gergiev will satisfy everyone is another question.
You know, I'm sure, 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 by French composer Maurice Ravel, which we have here. 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.
Every conductor interprets Mussorgsky's work differently, giving us his or her own personal take on the paintings, adding nuances of phrasing, rubato, contrast, dynamics, etc., to recreate as vivid a picture as possible 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 other. For me, Gergiev's various pictures hold up well enough interpretively, if not quite so vividly as my own favorites.
The single most important quality for any recording of Pictures is that the conductor makes sure every movement, every "portrait," sounds expressively developed and subtly shaded enough to bring to life the subject of the painting. In this regard, Gergiev is reasonably successful. Just don't expect the usual pyrotechnics from the piece; Gergiev prefers in this reading to evoke a big, earthy, yet still refined set of tonal images.
I liked the eeriness of "Il vecchio castello" and the fun in the "Ballet of the Chicks, although I still missed the sense of character contributed by a conductor like Fritz Reiner (RCA). Likewise, Gergiev's "Baba Yaga" and "Great Gate of Kiev," while still meaningful, seem to lack much of the kick that a conductor like Riccardo Muti (EMI) put into them. Well, you see what I mean; Gergiev's recording is fine but not among my favorites.
Philips recorded the music live in the Musikverein, Vienna, April, 2000, and released it on both a regular stereo CD and a hybrid multichannel SACD; I listened to the regular stereo CD. As far as the sound goes, it's good without being absolutely topflight, perhaps the live recording being a part of the problem. Things appear dynamic enough, to be sure, well balanced, very slightly veiled, and, thankfully, quiet. Yet there is a lack of truly deep bass that tends to rob a few movements in Pictures of their power and eloquence. The "Catacombs" segment, for example, really needs that low bass underpinning, as do the final two movements, "Baba Yaga" and "Great Gate of Kiev"; and it is here that both the Reiner and Muti discs again sweep the field.
So, the recording remains a slightly mixed bag for me. I expected Gergiev to be outgoing, red-blooded, but I found him a bit more conservative than I would have liked. Still, these are minor quibbles, I suppose, for folks looking for a serviceable digital recording of the Pictures, with three good, spirited couplings in A Night on the Bare Mountain, the Prelude to Khovanshchina, and the Gopak from Sorochintsy Fair to boot. Come to think of it, the couplings may be better interpreteted than the star attraction.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: