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

Hot Stamper Pressings of Pictures at an Exhibition

More on Mussorgsky’s (and Ravel’s) Masterpiece – Pictures at an Exhibition

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

This is the kind of record that the mono cartridge owners of the world worship. And for good reason. But you don’t need to have a mono cartridge to hear how good — in fact, how much BETTER — this copy sounds than most of the stereo pressings out there.

I found out about mono classical records one day when I got a mono copy of The Power Of The Orchestra, VCM 2659. It sounded better than any stereo recording of that work I had ever heard. All the instruments were so much more solid sounding, so palpable, so free from distortion, that it made me recognize for the first time what the mono record lovers of the world were talking about.

That was well over ten years ago. Since then many high end mono cartridges have come on the market, specifically to bring out that sound.

Here are some of the comments from the last Hot Stamper stereo copy we listed on the site.

This Shaded Dog pressing of the famous TAS List Super Disc title has TWO AMAZING SIDES! We have rarely heard a copy with such a huge hall sound and so much weight down low. Folks, it doesn’t get much better than this for huge orchestral dynamics and energy.

We used to think that Night on Bare Mountain, which starts off side one, had substandard sound, but on this copy it actually sounds surprisingly good. (There is a Fiedler performance on DG that we love but we rarely find them with good sound and have none to offer.)

This could easily become your go-to record for demonstrating not just the Power of the Orchestra, but the power of Vintage Analog!

Phenomenal Brass

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

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.

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 work with a more thrilling climax you’re a better man than I.

Powerful Bass

The third quality this record has is tremendous, powerful deep BASS. As you know, big bass drum thwacks are called 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 Golden Age recordings. 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, Muti’s on EMI. Leibowitz plays it straight and that’s the way I like it. Some of the early movements are a bit choppy, even inelegant, but still the drive and energy here carry the day.


Side One

Night On Bare Mountain
Il Vecchio Castello

Side Two

Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells
Samuel Goldenburg und Schmuyle
The Market Place at Limoges
Catacombs: Con Mortuis in Lingua Mortua
The Hut on Fowl’s Legs
The Great Gate Of Kiev

Pictures at an Exhibition – NPR Background by Ted Libby

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. Moussorgsky’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, Moussorgsky’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 Moussorgsky’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. Moussorgsky 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 witch Baba Yaga. Moussorgsky 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, Moussorgsky 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 Moussorgsky 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, Moussorgsky’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.

Other Pressings / Performances

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.

Ansermet on London

Another performance I don’t care much for is Ansermet’s with the Suisse Romande. It’s too 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 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, when that part 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 pure tube ANALOG technology of the ’50s and ’60s!

Chesky’s The Power of the Orchestra

So lifeless, compressed and thin. It’s clean and transparent, I’ll give it that, which is no doubt why so many audiophiles have been fooled into thinking it actually sounds better than the original. But of course there is no original; there are thousands of them, and they all sound different.

Chesky is one of the worst audiophile lablels in the history of the world. Their recordings are so artificial and “wrong” that they defy understanding. The fact that some audiophiles buy into this “junk sound” is in equal parts astonishing and depressing. Their own recordings are a joke, and their remasterings of the RCA Living Stereo catalog are an abomination. If there is a more CLUELESS audiophile label on the planet, I don’t know who it could be, and I don’t want to find out.

We Was Wrong

I confess I badly misjudged this record over the course of the last ten 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.)