Maybe it was RCA's supersmooth 1999 sonics on this disc that prevented me from liking the Mussorgsky tone paintings very much, just as the similar 1982 sonics helped me to like the Debussy fragments. Say what you will, the purely aural qualities of a disc can as much affect a listener's appreciation of a work as the interpretation itself.
Whatever, the big draw here is the late German conductor Gunter Wand's live recording of Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, orchestrated by Maurice Ravel. Perhaps surprisingly for Wand, whom most listeners might know best for his recordings of Beethoven, Brahms, and Bruckner, he had a soft spot in his heart for many years for the Mussorgsky piece, and only late in his career did he get around to recording it (digitally). Unfortunately, I found myself wanting a more vigorous approach to these miniature portraits, especially in the big numbers like "The Hut on Fowl's Legs" and "The Great Gate at Kiev."
To me, between RCA's plush, velvety sound and Wand's slow, precise articulation, much of the color appears squeezed out of the drama. The conductor comes off best in the moody "Old Castle" and the lovely, spring-day walk in "The Tuileries Garden." Compared to, say, Reiner's celebrated recording on the same label from over four decades earlier, Wand seems too deliberate (or just plain old). Likewise, a comparison to Riccardo Muti's performance on EMI reveals much more characterization and a whole lot more zest in Muti's rendering.
Anyway, as I said, RCA's sound is ultrasmooth and recorded live, the Mussorgsky in 1999 and the Debussy in 1982. I've never been much in favor of live recordings, so the disc had that strike against it going in. Coughs and wheezes are clearly evident throughout both works. There is an exceptionally good orchestral spread in both recordings, though, with a reasonable sense of depth and limited highlighting of instruments and, especially in the newer effort, good dynamics and a terrific bass drum in the Mussorgsky. The whole affair is certainly easy on the ear, but I wish I had taken more of a fancy to Wand's rendering of the Pictures.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: