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Debussy: Symphonic Fragments; Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition. Gunter Wand, NDR-Sinfonieorchester. RCA 74321 72788 2.

Debussy: Symphonic Fragments; Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition. Gunter Wand, NDR-Sinfonieorchester. RCA 74321 72788 2.

Maybe it was RCA's super-smooth sonics that prevented me from liking Mussorgsky's tone paintings very much, just as the same 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.

Anyway, the big draw here is Gunter Wand's live recording of Pictures at an Exhibition, orchestrated by Maurice Ravel. Perhaps surprisingly for Wand, who is best known for his recordings of Beethoven, Brahms, and Bruckner, he has had a soft spot in his heart for the Mussorgsky piece for many years and has only recently gotten 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." But between RCA's plush, velvety sound and Wand's slow, precise articulation, much of the color is 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 Reiner's celebrated recording on the same label from over four decades earlier, Wand seems overly deliberate, or just plain old. Likewise, a comparison to Muti on EMI reveals much more characterization and a whole lot more zest in the younger man's rendering.

The Debussy fragments, however, benefit from Wand's measured, contemplative approach, creating 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." They are based on sketches Debussy had made, but they were completed by one of his pupils, Andre Caple. When this orchestral-ballet was first performed, apparently it caused quite a scandal, what with a seminude female dancer as Saint Sebastian!

As I said, RCA's sound is ultra-smooth 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, 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 the Pictures.
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Author:Puccio, John
Publication:Sensible Sound
Date:Nov 1, 2000
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