Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (CD review)

Also, Debussy: Symphonic Fragments. Gunter Wand, NDR-Sinfonieorchester. RCA 74321 72788 2.

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.

Gunter Wand
However, the Debussy fragments are another matter and benefit from Wand's measured, contemplative approach as he creates a dark, haunting, highly evocative atmosphere typical of the composer. The fragments, pieces of The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, include four movements: "The Court of Lilies," "Dance and Finale" from the first Act, "The Passion," and "The Good Shepherd." Debussy based them on sketches he had made, later completed by one of his pupils, Andre Caple. As a side note, when his orchestral-ballet was first performed, apparently it caused quite a scandal, what with a seminude female dancer as Saint Sebastian.

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.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:


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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.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa