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Modest Mussorgsky
Pictures at an Exhibition (arr. Ravel)
Mariss Jansons conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
SACD No.: RCO Live RCO 09004 (Hybrid Disc) TT 33m08s
Review By Wayne Donnelly

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  This much beloved orchestral warhorse has seldom received a recording in which both performance and sound are so outstanding. For half a century there has been broad consensus that the RCA Living Stereo recording by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony is at the top of the recorded heap, and audiophile remasterings, on both vinyl and digital media have served it well in recent years. Personally, I also place on that metaphorical top shelf the superb1976 Giulini/CSO LP on DG -- an interpretation that I originally heard in concert. I find Giulini's reading equal to Reiner in every respect, and even superior in places (e.g., my favorite realization of "Bydlo" ["The Oxcart"]. To rank Jansons alongside those champion recordings is high praise indeed.

I typically prefer to evaluate the performance first, and then focus on the sonics of a new release. But the sound here is a good place to start. It is, in a word, sensational -- the best-sounding recording of Pictures I have heard from the digital era. The fabulous virtuosity of the Concertgebouw -- like the CSO one of the world's very greatest ensembles -- fills my listening room with the stunning brass, gorgeously expressive strings, characterful woodwinds and startlingly powerful percussion so typical of this band. With a huge, dimensional soundstage and extraordinary dynamic range, this live concert recording from 2008 is about as good as it gets from a commercial SACD release.

The opening notes of the "Promenade" gave me a shiver of anticipation, as the clarion-clear  trumpet theme springs out of the anticipatory silence, the remaining brass choirs join in, and finally the entire orchestra fills out the soundstage. Jansons' subtle, masterly command of phrasing and dynamics, evident here and throughout, in combination with the fine sonics, brings out myriad details that are typically obscured in less perceptive readings. Pictures may not pose the deep intellectual challenge of a major symphony, but the flawlessly achieved artistic collaboration of Jansons and his players delivers a special pleasure to this listener. And for those looking for a killer orchestral demo disc, let me assure you that the closing "Great Gate at Kiev" " will rattle your bones to a very satisfying degree.

Now for the bad news. I was shocked to find that this fine Pictures is the only piece on this 33-minute disc. C'mon folks -- you couldn't have thrown in some kind of filler? I'm sure these forces have played many short works that would have made good disc mates. Or, since this is a concert recording, I wonder what else was played on the program that night? The sting of this paltry playing time is perhaps slightly lessened by its being a mid-price release, but I would be annoyed by this short measure even in a bargain CD. I hope the decision makers at RCO Live will do better in future.

But in spite of the ungenerous content presented here, you'll have a hard time finding a better -- or better-sounding -- recording of this masterpiece.







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