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Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; Night on Bald Mountain; Khovanshchina; Borodin: in the Steppes of Central Asia.

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; Night on Bald Mountain; Khovanshchina; Borodin: In the Steppes of Central Asia. Leonard Slatkin, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 4004.

As you know, Mussorgsky wrote his Pictures at an Exhibition in 1874 as a collection piano pieces, each short work describing a different painting or drawing by the composer's friend, Viktor Hartmann. Mussorgsky's idea was to create a series of tone poems as a tribute to the artist by depicting impressions of ten of Hartmann's paintings hanging in a gallery and being viewed by passersby. Mussorgsky's results were not entirely impressed upon the public, however, until they were orchestrated by Maurice Ravel many years later in the form we know them here.

Leonard Slatkin and his St. Louis players undertook to bring these oft-recorded works to disc in 1975, but I wish he had taken more time to recreate the color and character of each portrait. As it is, he seems to spend more time replicating the beauty of the music than interpreting the individual peculiarities of the paintings. The various "Promenades," for instance, seem hurried, as though the visitors to the gallery were rushing to find an exit; the "Ballet of the Chicks" doesn't seem too much different from the "Children Quarreling at Play"; the "Hut on Fowl's Legs" doesn't have much energy; and "The Great Gate of Kiev" lacks necessary grandeur. For a definitive rendering, compare Fritz Reiner (RCA/JVC) and his Chicago Orchestra, where every miniature is has its own unique distinctiveness.

The Night on Bald Mountain and the Khovanshchina excerpts come off better, with a little more flair. Best of all, however, is Borodin's In the Steppes of Central Asia, which is beautifully drawn and conveys a real sense of being in a separate place and time.

The recording was originally made by Vox in two-channel stereo and four-channel quadraphonics. Mobile Fidelity have remastered it in their Ultradisc UHR GAIN 2 series, on two layers of a hybrid SACD, meaning you can play it in stereo on a regular CD player or in discrete four channel on a Super Audio CD player. In stereo, as I listened to it, the sound of the Mussorgsky is slightly veiled, as though there were too much hall reverberation, too much resonance, present. Bass is strong, as is treble when present, but most of the midrange is mediocre. On the other hand, the Borodin exhibits no such veiling, being much clearer and more transparent. I wondered about this and then noticed that the original cover jacket for the Mussorgsky LP lists only the Mussorgsky works, not the Borodin. There is no mention in Mo-Fi's booklet, but it led me to wonder if the Borodin wasn't recorded at another time. I don't know. But it does sound better than the Mussorgsky.

My guess is that this release, with the exception of the Borodin, may be more appropriate for playback on dedicated SACD systems in multichannel than for playback in ordinary two-channel stereo.
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Author:Puccio, John
Publication:Sensible Sound
Article Type:Sound Recording Review
Date:Sep 1, 2004
Words:498
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