Mussorgsky / The Power of the Orchestra / Leibowitz – Awesome In Stereo

This review dates from 2007. We recently played a copy of the album and did not care for the sound of it much, which you can read about here.

DEMO DISC QUALITY ORCHESTRAL SOUND like you will not believe. We put two top copies together to bring you the ultimate-sounding Pictures At An Exhibition. Folks, it doesn’t get any better than this for huge orchestral dynamics and energy.

One side of each copy rates A Triple Plus — our highest sonic grade. The sound is out of this world. 

We had to do it that way, for one simple reason: Pictures stretches over both sides of this record, and no copy we played had two good sides, which means that if you were to own only one LP of this set, some part of the work would not sound nearly as good as the rest. This is always a problem with classical recordings: one good sounding side is not enough.

On top of that there are always condition issues with old Living Stereo records. So few are quiet. We love the sound but the vinyl leaves much to be desired. Here are some comments from a previous comparison package (with minor changes of course).

Comparison Package

The person who buys this two LP Package will have the opportunity to hear for himself just how bad most pressings of VCS 2659 are. With these two LPs, you are getting an Amazing Side One and an Amazing Side Two – just not on the same piece of vinyl. (The joke here at Better Records is that I should label which side sounds good and which side doesn’t in case the buyer has trouble telling them apart. Since so many audiophiles like so many bad sounding records – don’t get me started – this is not as ridiculous as it sounds. But the difference between the two sides is so OBVIOUS that virtually anyone will hear it. Even those people who still think that Harry Pearson and his Superdisc List can do no wrong. If you buy a bad sounding copy of this record, it ain’t no Superdisc, not by a long shot.

We Was Wrong

I confess I badly misjudged this record over the course of the last few years. I remember liking it in the early ’90s; at that time it was the only Golden Age recording of Pictures whose performance moved me. I never liked the famous Reiner, LSC 2201, and Ansermet’s performance on London also lacks drive and coherency in my opinion. (On a side note, the sound on the right original London pressings is astoundingly good. There is no version I have ever heard with more weight and character to the brass. “Catacombs” is breathtaking on the right copy of that LP. I have it in my own collection and treasure it to this day.)

Playing this record a few years back, and now again for this shootout, I realized it has three very strong suits that bear commenting upon.

Phenomenal Brass

Amazingly good brass, especially the brighter brass instruments like trumpets. Other Golden Age recordings, as enjoyable as they may be, do not get the “piercing” quality of the brass right, probably because of compression, limiting, tube smear, or some combination of the three. The brass on this record cuts through the entire orchestra and jumps out of your speakers! It’s also tonally perfect. It’s not agressive. It’s not irritating. It’s just immediate and powerful the way the real thing is when you hear it live. That’s the first thing that really caught me by surprise.

Real Dynamics

Another thing this record has going for it is DYNAMICS. This is a dynamic piece of music. Few pressings I have ever heard have the dynamic contrasts that this one does. It really gets loud when it needs to. It sounds completely uncompressed. Although I’m sure there has to be compression of one kind or another, the listener is not aware of it. Dynamics like these are thrilling. They make this piece of music come alive. I love that sound!

The big finish with cymbal crashes and that amazing gong is worth the price of the album — when you can find one that’s not compressed and distorted from bad mastering or abuse. If you can find a more thrilling climax to a more powerful orchestral work you are a better man than I am.

Powerful Bass

The third quality this record has is tremendous, powerful deep BASS. As you know, bass drum thwacks are calle for throughout this composition. This is one of the few recordings where those bass notes don’t get “clipped” because the cutting amplifiers have run out of juice. That’s a sound that’s common to many Living Stereos. We put up with it because we like all the other qualities they have, but it’s a shortcoming of tube cutting amplifiers from that era. The deep bass on this record is prodigious, as Dr. Strangelove might say. It really rocks the room.

A Top Performance

On a performance level, this is an excellent one in all respects, comparable to my favorite performance of all time, Muti’s on EMI. Leibowitz plays it straight and that’s the way I like it.

MFSL and Phony Sound

The MFSL pressing, #520, is passable at best, with the kind of unbearably bright strings that Stan Ricker likes. The last time I played a copy I found the sound so hi-fi-ish I couldn’t stand to be in the room with it for more than a minute. The bass is of course jello as well. The EMI with the right stampers is worlds better. (The domestic Angel regular version and the 45 are both awful.)

The Classic Reiner

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.

And I don’t like 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.

Night On Bare Mountain

Night on Bare Mountain, which starts off side one, is not to my liking at all. There are many good performances of that work on other records you can find elsewhere on the site. Buy this record for an amazing Pictures. You will have a hard time finding a better one.