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Mussorgsky wrote the Pictures in 1874, a tribute to his late friend the artist and architect Viktor Harttman, whose posthumous exhibition of 400 works in the Academy of Fine Arts in St Petersberg was held earlier in that year. The work characterizes 10 of the paintings plus, in the various "Promenade" settings, his own personality. Fifty years passed before Ravel published his definitive orchestration, although others have appeared both before and since.
One way to tackle the work is as a spectacular showpiece, as illustrated most famously by Fritz Reiner's legendary RCA Red Seal recording. Some listeners would also point to Lorin Maazel with the Cleveland Orchestra on Telarc. Slatkin's approach is lower key, less a pyrotechnic display than an organic and subtle rendition. For the most part the sound is good, but this SACD/CD hybrid reissue of the 1975 four-channel Vox masters fails to fully resolve the deep bass. The orchestral playing, however, is beyond reproach.
The sound improves for the other works. Night on a Bald Mountain, orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov, receives a measured but full-blooded performance that merits repeated listening. The less familiar scenes from the opera Khovanshchina are beautifully presented in another Rimsky-Korsakov orchestration. Slatkin's expansive pace and careful coloring make this, for me, the highlight of the disc.
Filling out the program is Borodin's In The Steppes of Central Asia, a "Tableau Vivant" celebrating the silver jubilee of Tsar Alexander II in 1880. Orchestral color and atmosphere are very well captured here.
The CD layer sounds well on this disc, closely approaching the SACD layer. Both have a very wide soundstage. The Red Book mastering lacks the depth and layering of the SACD layer but maintains almost all of the orchestral detail. The perspective is from well back in the hall, losing perhaps some excitement compared to more closely recorded rivals. For some reason, the engineers have Bald Mountain starting just seconds after the final chords of Pictures.
I'd like to suggest that readers also seek out the original piano version of Pictures at an Exhibition, a stiff challenge to piano vrtuosos that I actually prefer to the orchestral version. I can point you to Richter, Brendel and Pletnev for rich and varied performances.