Mussorgsky – Pictures At An Exhibition – Ozawa – A Good Record (Potentially), Not a Great One


A distinguished member of the Better Records Orchestral Music Hall of Fame.

This Chicago Symphony recording by RCA in 1968 has that BIG HALL SOUND we love here at Better Records. Multi-miking is kept to a minimum, which allows the listener to visualize the orchestra from a more natural perspective than other recordings of the work you may have heard. 

The sound is open and spacious, with lovely texture to the strings. The larger horns are especially well-captured here, Their dark and powerful sound, coupled with the fact that the recording is so dynamic and full-bodied, can really be quite moving. It might just send some shivers up your spine.

Classic Records? No Thank You

The lower strings are also wonderful here — wall to wall, with that rosiny texture we love. I was reminded of The Stokowski Magic album on RCA (LSC 2471) ; it has many of the same qualities. I wrote at the time — this is well over ten years ago — that the Classic pressing took that rich, dark sound and brightened it up, ruining it in the process. Cellos and double basses just don’t sound like that. On this record their timbre is Right On The Money. Of course, this is the real thing, not some audiophile rebutchering.

Now if you’re a Classic Records fan, and you like that brighter, more detailed, more aggressive sound, this is probably not the record for you. We don’t like that sound and we don’t like most Classic Records. They may be clean and clear but where is the RCA Living Stereo Magic that made people swoon over these recordings in the first place? Bernie manages to clean that sound right off the record, and that’s just not our idea of high-fidelity, sorry.

Side two could not quite keep up sonically with side one. It lacked a measure of presence and some of the deep bass we heard on side one as well.

For the Britten piece the sound was musical, very rich and sweet, but a bit smooth and smeary compared to the best. We rate side two A+, a full step down from side one but more than a few steps up from the average copy you will find in the bin at your local store.

By the way, check out the list of instruments Britten employs: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in B flat and A, 2 bassoons, 4 horns in F, 2 trumpets in C, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion (timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, triangle, side drum, wood block, xylophone, castanets, tamtam and whip), harp and strings. Sounds like audiophile heaven to me!

Pictures at an Exhibition

As an orchestral showpiece – the form in which it is familiar to most listeners – Pictures at an Exhibition is two times over a work of enlargement. Mussorgsky’s original suite for piano, composed in 1874 as a memorial to the painter Victor Hartmann, took as its point of departure ten pictures displayed at a posthumous exhibition of the artist’s work. Though pianistically crude, Mussorgsky’s renderings of his friend’s images convey their rich fantasy with sincerity and great imaginative force. Ravel’s celebrated orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition, undertaken in 1922 at the request of conductor Serge Koussevitzky, in turn faithfully amplifies both the wit and deep feeling of Mussorgsky’s tribute.

One is surprised, listening to the orchestral version, to discover that Hartmann’s originals were modest little sketches and watercolors. For example, the Ballet of Chicks in their Shells was inspired by a whimsical costume sketch for a children’s ballet. Mussorgsky had turned that into a lively scene painting, and Ravel’s scoring, with its clucking oboes and scurrying scale passages in the bassoon and strings, transforms the children in their eggshell costumes into real chicks.

The inspiration for The Hut on Fowl’s Legs came from a quaint design for a clock in the shape of cabin built on a chicken’s feet – the unlikely abode of the with Baba Yaga. Mussorgsky decided to portray the legendary hag’s frightful ride through the air. Ravel marshals the heavy brass and a business like array of percussion to create a thunderous chase.

In The Great Gate of Kiev, the most breathtaking and at the same time most touching part of the suite, Mussorgsky apostrophized his departed friend with a monumental realization of Hartmann’s lopsided, ornately decorated drawing of a city gate in the old Russian style, with a cupola in the shape of a helmet surmounting the gatehouse. Based on the theme Mussorgsky called Promenade – which opens Pictures at an Exhibition and is meant to depict the viewer’s passing from one work to the next – this finale was the composer’s way of saying farewell and, at least in music, giving substance to one of his friend’s fondest dreams. In Ravel’s hands, Mussorgsky’s vision of a gate that was never built becomes one of the architectural wonders of the world, magnificently brought to life by full brass, pulsing strings, pealing bells, and triumphant cymbals.

The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra

The work is based on the Rondeau from Abdelazar, written by Henry Purcell. In the introduction, the theme is initially played by the entire orchestra, then by the individual sections of the orchestra: first the woodwinds, then the brass, then the strings, and finally by the percussion.

After this introduction to the different families of the orchestra by repetitions of the theme, there is a more in-depth look at the different instrument families with variations on the theme played by individual instruments. Although it starts by featuring the piccolo and flutes, the underlying harmonic structure is maintained by the harp and strings. Each member of the woodwind family is then introduced in turn, highlighting the unique sound of each instrument. This is the reason it is called the young person’s guide to the orchestra: because of the repeating theme with different instruments showing how each instrument sounds.

This format is then copied by the strings in turn, and then by the brass and percussion, travelling through their individual variations.

After the whole orchestra has been taken in pieces, it is reassembled using an original fugue which starts with the piccolo, followed in by all the woodwinds, strings, brass and percussion in turn. Once everyone has entered, the brass are re-introduced with Purcell’s original melody while the remainder continue the fugue theme until the piece finally comes to an end after building up to a fortissimo finish.


Side One

Pictures At An Exhibition – Part I

Promenade; Gnomes; Promenade
The Old Castle; Promenade
Bydlo; Promenade
Ballet Of The Chicks In Their Shells
Samuel Goldenberg And Schmuyle
The Marketplace At Limoges
Catacombs: Con Mortuis In Lingua Mortua

Side Two

Pictures At An Exhibition – Part II

The Hut Of Baba Yaga
The Great Gate At Kiev

The Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra, Op. 34