Pictures at an Exhibition is a piano suite depicting the composer walking through a posthumous exhibit of his friend's drawings. Koussevitsky commissioned Ravel to transcribe the piece for orchestra and the Ravel orchestration has defeated all comers ever since.
The Original Piano Version
There is no clear-cut winner here. Horowitz's 1947 recording is hands down the interpretive winner, but the scratchy sound and lack of bottom is likely to drive many audiophiles up the wall. Richter's is the most famous recording and seemingly the reflex choice of nine out of ten classical reviewers, but in my opinion some of his tempo choices are wayward and he also suffers from less than stellar sound. If you want modern stereo sound, the Pogorelich would be my recommendation. However, his is a highly idiosyncratic interpretation that will not be to everyone's taste. Engerer offers a performance that is still strong, but not as threatening. I also listened to Kissin, Ashkenazy, Janis, and Jacoby (sounds like a law firm doesn't it?) but consider these to be uncompetitive.
Horowitz grips the keyboard in those huge hands of his and commands the piano from start to finish. The authority which emanates from this recording is simply awesome. Hair raising doesn't begin to describe this performance. It'll raise your hair and rip it right off. At one or two points, the piano god even appears to play some wrong notes (this may be due to the primitive quality of the 40's era recording), but no matter. Purists will cringe at the liberties Horowitz took with the score, but the result is utterly convincing and I was carried away by this performance.
Depending on which edition of the score the pianist is working from, Bydlo will either begin quietly with a gradual crescendo or the old oxcart will bear down on you right from the start. Horowitz's Bydlo is of the crescendo variety and he builds to an absolutely ferocious climax. In Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks you will hear the battle between the left and right hands delineated more clearly than on any other recording. His Limoges simply flies as Horowitz produces flurries of notes played at superhuman speed as if a mighty gale were gusting through the depicted marketplace. Catacombs and the Chat With The Dead form a calm interlude that sets the stage before the thundering finale of Baba Yaga and the Great Gate. Horowitz milks their sad and mournful air to the maximum.
Fasten your seat belts for a hairy ride. Horowitz just takes off in Baba Yaga and never stops till the last resounding chord of the Great Gate. The volume he achieves at some points is simply unbelievable. The emotional outpouring of this performance will leave you limp with exhaustion.
Included on this CD is the usual grab bag of Horowitz showpieces. Some of the more startling are Horowitz's own Danse Excentrique and a rendering of Stars and Stripes Forever. Yes, that Stars and Stripes. Horowitz had recently been granted US Citizenship and showed his patriotic feelings for his new homeland by making a rousing transcription of Sousa's famous march.
I repeat my warning that this recording is scratchy and (heavens forefend!) in mono too. If doggie quality sound in stereo is absolutely essential to you, look elsewhere. But if you are more music lover than audiophile, then prepare to be richly rewarded. A bit of bass boost at 100 Hz is helpful.
Sometimes the only competition for Horowitz is Horowitz. There are two live recordings from 1941 and 1961. The pianist's conception of this work remained remarkably steady over the intervening decades and there is not a great difference from the 1947 studio recording reviewed here.
Richter's performance is legendary, although I fail to see why. It is a good performance, but not the earthshaking experience one has come to expect from the unstinting praise that has been heaped upon it. The second picture, Old Castle, is rather perfunctory. There's not much bite there. Perhaps it is the fault of the pressing because the dynamic range is curtailed and there is not much bottom. In Ballet of the Chicks, Richter slows down the tempo in the middle of the piece in a way that seems most inappropriate. Then he's too fast in the promenade after the Two Jews. Mussorgsky is practically scampering here, which is neither appropriate, nor indeed possible given the man's great bulk.
Limoges is successful. I enjoyed the breakneck pace at which Richter plays this passage. He gives the Catacombs the called for lugubrious treatment. He does deliver a hairy Hut on Fowl's Legs. Perhaps this is the basis for the legend. He takes it at a cracking pace and absolutely hammers home the chords. Despite a weak start, he also brings off the Great Gate of Kiev. The beginning is marred by a series of fortes that are all played at the same level, detracting from their impact. But then the mighty Richter gets going, making the bells ring out and delivering a thunderous finale. A frustratingly uneven performance, but the highlights are certainly worthy of your attention.
There is a lot of coughing in the background, but that didn't bother me overmuch.
The Pog plays the Pictures in fine, muscular two fisted style. He gives us rolling thunder in the bass at the end of Gnomus before scampering off in a lightning quick run. Proving that he can play the ballads as well as pound the keys, the Pog gives us a sensitively played Old Castle. He keeps it interesting with some intelligent phrasing. The oxcart in the Pog's Bydlo is heavily overloaded and can barely move until finally, it staggers over the finish line. A novel and interesting interpretation that works for me. Both the Dance of the Unborn Chicks and Goldenberg & Schmuyle receive a heavier treatment than is usually heard. Where other pianists just skip through, the Pog gives each note individual weight and space. He takes the opposite approach to Limoges playing each note staccato as if the keys were red hot.
The Pog gives a highly emotional reading of Catacombae and Con Mortuis, again giving great weight to each individual note. He continues with this approach in Baba Yaga producing an exceptionally forceful reading full of power. Needless to say the Pog's way really pays off in the Great Gate where he absolutely rams home every chord culminating in a ringing finale that is just magnificent. What a loss to the world of music that this musician has been sidelined due to health problems.
Coupled with the Pictures is Ravel's set of eight waltzes. His readings are just as fresh and indelibly stamped with his personality as his Mussorgsky. I find his playing completely exhilarating.
The sound is bass light and needs a boost at 100Hz, which I duly gave it.
Never heard of her (not that that means much). I only picked this up because it's on Harmonia Mundi, a label beloved of audiophiles and music mavens alike. What a surprise to find the unknown Mme Engerer giving a strong, supple reading, bursting with vitality. (Actually, I should have heard of her - she's a Neuhaus student who won the Tchaikovsky competition.)
Engerer's playing sparkles with spontaneity and freshness. The notes sound slightly slurred, but I find that fits with the spirit of the piece. I much prefer this to an interpretation where each note is perfectly articulated but the performance is emotionless. She starts off with a powerful promenade and the Gnomus is equally strong as Engerer hits home her chords. The promenade which follows is more contemplative as is her Old Castle which she enlivens with occasional highlights. The third promenade is again strong followed by a Tuileries that is more heavily accented than usual. Her Bydlo is one of those that approaches from a distance and gradually gets louder, emphasizing the percussive aspect of this passage. Her Ballet of the Chicks is spirited and the Goldenberg & Schmuyle full of humor.
An agile and athletic Limoges is coupled with a thoughtful Catacombae and Talk With The Dead (which is incorrectly labeled as a sixth promenade in the liner notes). Wow! Hang on to your hats as Engerer pulls out the stops in Baba Yaga, especially the ending which is taken in one breathless unbroken run. She tops off her performance with a mighty Gates crafted to give the requisite big payoff at the end.
As an added treat, Mme Engerer gives us a spine tingling version of Night on Bald Mountain which I had only heard before in its Rimskified form. The pianist unleashes a night of primitive savagery which surpasses even the orchestral version in intensity. No wonder this lady won the Tchaik with chops like these. After the fireworks, she gives us a tender finale.
Also included in this disk are five short pieces by Mussorgsky which I didn't even know existed. Engerer plays them with the same vim and vigor that she displays on the rest of this CD and makes them a welcome addition to the discography.
The sound is bass light and could use a boost at 100 Hz. At the same time, her piano sounds oddly muffled in the higher registers as if the hammers were wrapped in cotton wool so a boost around 5 KHz is also recommended. If you do this you will rewarded with a nicely resonant sound.
Kudos to Harmonia Mundi on the cardboard packaging. Would that all CD's came this way so we could ditch the loathsome jewel box (I hate the way the hinges tend to break off and its overall general fragility).
You've no doubt noticed that I recommend bass boost for all three of the recommended piano recordings. Naturally, one starts to wonder if it's the system that's bass shy and not the recordings. So I checked all three recordings out on another system and confirmed that they are indeed bass shy.
The Also Rans
At the risk of further outraging those who already feel I left out their favorites, I'm going to briefly explain why I consider the following recordings to be uncompetitive.
I found Kissin (RCA 9026-63884-2) overly polite and too tightly controlled. He fusses over minutiae when he should be letting loose. The argument over whether one should just play the notes or look for some elusive essential quality in a piece is one that has been going on for over a hundred years and doubtless will go on as long as classical music is played. Obviously, I prefer recordings that bear the unmistakably personal stamp of the interpreters. I don't believe you truly hear a composer unless the interpreter makes the music his or her own. Even such an interpreter as Guilini who is about as modest and egoless a musician as you are likely to find, nevertheless his humanity shines through in his conducting. The character of a great musician will always shine through in his music making. Otherwise what we have is mere machine music.
Continuing with the pianistic also-rans, the Ashkenazy (London CS 6559) is a sentimental favourite having been my introduction to Mussorgsky, but regretfully I must cast it aside as being merely excellent. Janis (Mercury 434 346-2) is another sentimental favorite because one sympathizes with this great musician's misfortune to have had a brilliant career interrupted by arthritis. But again, mere excellence doesn't get one into the company of the piano gods. Ditto Jacoby despite the usual superb engineering from our pal, Tony Faulkner (Dutton CDSA 6802).
The Ravel Orchestration
For sheer excitement and beauty of sound, the Reiner is unexcelled. Guilini gives us a warmer, more human interpretation but in sound that is much inferior. Dorati gives us yet another view of this masterpiece that is somewhere in between the Reiner and the Guilini: not as individualistic as Guilini but in much better sound.
Ahhh, that glorious doggie sound. Never excelled on records. If you've never heard the sound of an early RCA stereo recording you are in for a treat and a revelation. It just sounds so natural and alive. The brass unfold with a beautiful bloom. The dynamics are out of this world. One of the crown jewels of the recorded catalog. Unfortunately, this particular jewel is sold out. Let Classic Records know you'd like to see this album come back and maybe they'll reissue it.
Beautiful sweeping violins counter a chirping trumpet in Goldenberg and Schmuyle. Then deep thundering bass. Limoges is taken at a cracking pace. You can hear every last tinkle in the percussion. The sound of the brass in Catacombae is very rich. Then it's sonic blockbuster time, starting with tremendous chords in The Hut on Fowl's Legs. Brass fanfares, tympani, this movement has it all in spades. Some of the tympani whacks will have you leaping out of your skin and your minimonitors dancing on their stands. The Great Gate of Kiev is more of the same only more so. Full orchestral music like this is why some of us invest in Big Power - unless of course you have a nice set of horn speakers.
Guilini provides a Pictures that is more accented than Reiner's. The phrasing is more pointed, the tempo changes more exaggerated. The result is an interpretation that is far more human - a "small picture" reading that nicely complements Reiner's "big picture" approach. Listen to how Guilini stretches out certain phrases in Tuileries, before speeding up the tempo again. The woodwind section acquit themselves splendidly with much animated twittering. Guilini's Limoges is a breathless affair with a great hustle and bustle in the marketplace, until interrupted by a stately reading of Catacombs. The lonely trumpet sounds like a military funeral. The first phrases of Talking with the Dead are barely audible and gradually shiver into a sacred requiem. Guilini snaps right into Baba Yaga, taking it at a terrific pace and delivering some tremendous thunderclaps. His Great Gate is full of grandeur, pomp and circumstance that he does not fail to top off with a thrilling finale, full of crashing cymbals and ringing bells.
Coupled with the Pictures is a deeply felt reading of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony. From the first note to the last, Guilini emphasizes the tragic nature of this symphony without falling into sentimentality. Not for nothing is this piece nicknamed "Pathetique". Altogether, a wonderful CD. Top recommendation.
There is a good bit of audience noise in between movements, but they are mostly on their best behavior when actual music is being played on this 1961 recording. The sound is thin, mono, and a bit reedy.
Minneapolis Symphony (now Minnesota Symphony)
RCA Living Stereo versus Mercury Living Presence: that was the great rivalry of the Golden Age of recording. The huge corporation versus the mom and pop operation of Wilma Cozart and C. Robert Fine. Would that I had the Mercury on LP so I could properly compare with the Living Stereo LP, nevertheless Wilma Cozart Fine who supervised the CD re-issue judges the digital version to be a more faithful rendition of the master tapes than the original LP's.
This Pictures comparison holds up the stereotyped contrast between the sounds of the two great labels. The Mercuries indeed emphasizing presence, leap from the speakers with startling dynamics and a more silvery sound than the RCA whose strong suit is a rich enveloping soundstage. Exciting as the Mercury sound is, for my money, the RCA's are closer to the real thing.
Dorati's performance is every bit as worthy as Reiner or Guilini. His phrasing is more individualistic than Reiner but not as idiosyncratic as Guilini's and he too builds to an absolutely cracking finale in the Great Gate.
This recording is coupled with Janis' piano version of Pictures.