Mussorgsky / Pictures at an Exhibition / Muti – Our Shootout Winner from 2012

More of the music of Modest Mussorgsky

Pictures at an Exhibition / Muti

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

This White Hot Stamper EMI Two-Pak gives you the complete Pictures at an Exhibition and the Firebird Suite with TOP PERFORMANCES and SUPERB SONICS from first note to last. It took two separate discs to make it happen, but we managed to find the two copies with sides that matched up in order to bring both of these works to LIFE. 

Much like Steinberg and the BSO’s performance of The Planets, he finds the music in the work that no one else can.

In the original 1979 review of the Mussorgsky, Robert Layton in the GRAMOPHONE wrote: “…what orchestral playing they offer us. The lower strings in ‘Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle’ have an extraordinary richness, body and presence, and “Baba Yaga”, which opens the second side, has an unsurpassed virtuosity and attack as well as being of demonstration standard as a recording. The glorious body of tone, the richly glowing colours, the sheer homogeneity of the strings and perfection of the ensemble is a constant source of pleasure.” Of the Stravinsky Layton wrote: “…Muti’s reading is second to none and the orchestral playing is altogether breathtaking. The recording is amazingly lifelike and truthful.”

That EMI Sound

There is a slightly multi-miked quality to this recording. If you’ve been playing true Golden Age records all day you will notice that the instruments are more naturally and correctly spaced and sized on those recordings.

But, this is still a KNOCKOUT record which is guaranteed to bring any stereo to its knees. The dynamics, the deep bass and the sheer power of the orchestra have to be heard to be believed.

What does the typical EMI pressing of this album sound like? Not good. Sour brass, smeary or shrill strings, lacking in bass — mid-hall dead-as-a-doornail sound is fairly typical. Almost all the copies I’ve played are spacious, but so what? The sound of the instruments is often wrong and in my book that trumps any benefits concerning soundstaging or depth.

But the Hot Stampers give you the presence and immediacy you need to get involved in the work. The strings on the better copies have rosiny texture. The brass has weight — not the full measure of an RCA or London recording, but at least you get the impression that those instruments are trying to sound correct. And the bass drum really goes deep, unlike the Golden Age recordings I’ve heard.

Side One – Record One

At least A++, probably A++ to A+++, and clearly the best side one we heard in our shootout. It’s spacious, transparent, and tonally correct. The timbre of the instruments is Right On The Money! Big and rich and lively, we LOVED this side!

Side two of this record earned a single plus grade. The violins get a bit shrill and the lower brass, the trombones especially, lack weight. Not bad but not like side one.

Side Two – Record Two

A+++, truly White Hot. So BIG and LIVELY! As good as any side of this album we have ever heard.

Again, a side one with A+ sound shows you what the good, but not great, copies sound like. Hardness and smear on the strings are a real problem with these pressings; this side shows you what that sound is all about.

Surfaces

As I’ve noted many times on the site, the vinyl produced by EMI in the ’70s leaves a lot to be desired. They almost all are. Mint Minus to Mint Minus Minus is very good, and this copy actual has a quieter side two than that.

Other Pressings and Performances

The natural question for most audiophiles is how does these pressings compare to the the Mobile Fidelity?

It’s a joke next to a properly mastered British EMI. All that phony boosted top end that makes the strings sound so funny and causes mischief in virtually every part of the orchestra is missing from the real EMIs.

MoFi had a bad habit of making bright classical records. I suppose you could say they had a bad habit of making bright records in general. A few are dull, some are just right, but most of them are bright and thin in one way or another. Dull playback equipment? An attempt to confuse detail with resolution? Whatever the reasons, the better and more accurate your equipment becomes, the most obvious this shortcoming will be. My tolerance for their phony EQ is at an all time low. But that’s me.

While I’m in this bashing mode, let me take a shot at Classic Records, since their mastering approach is — gulp — even worse. I can play the MoFi of Pictures and enjoy it. I can’t play the Classic of Pictures at all. The shrillness, the hardness, the sourness, the loss of texture to the strings, the phony boosted deep bass — this is the kind of sound that makes my skin crawl. After a minute or two I’ve had it.

And I don’t much care for Reiner’s performance either. I don’t think the classical critics ever had much respect for his Pictures, but audiophiles and TAS heads for some reason put up with his awkward, disjointed, unmusical approach. I’ll never understand it. And insult is only added to injury by Classic’s bad mastering.

Another performance I don’t like is Ansermet’s with the Suisse Romande. It’s ridiculously slow and ponderous. But my God, the sound of the brass on that record is TO DIE FOR. It’s without a doubt one of the most POWERFUL classical recordings I have ever heard. There is a blast of brass at the end of The Catacombs that is so big and real, it makes you forget you’re listening to a recording. You hear every brass instrument, full size, full weight. I still remember the night I was playing that album, good and loud of course, and that section of the work played through. It was truly startling in its power.

Some of Ansermet’s recordings with the Suisse Romande are absolutely the best I’ve ever heard. It was a magical combination of the right hall, the right engineers, the right orchestra and the right technology — the recording technology of the ’50s and ’60s!

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Promenade 
Gnomus 
Il Vecchio Castello 
Tuileries 
Bydlo 
Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells 
Samuel Goldenburg und Schmuyle 
The Market Place at Limoges 
Catacombs: Con Mortuis in Lingua Mortua

Side Two

The Hut on Fowl’s Legs 
The Great Gate Of Kiev
The Firebird (Suite)