- An outstanding pressing, with solid Double Plus (A++) sound or BETTER throughout
- Our favorite performance by far, with BIG, BOLD and POWERFUL sonics like no other recording we know
- The brass clarity, the dynamics, the deep bass and the sheer power of the orchestra are almost hard to believe
- No vintage recording of these works compares with Muti’s – and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite is an extra special added bonus on side two
This EMI pressing gives you the complete Pictures at an Exhibition with a TOP PERFORMANCE and SUPERB SONICS from first note to last.
As this is my All Time Favorite performance of Pictures, this record naturally comes very highly recommended. Pictures is a piece of music that has been recorded countless times, and I’ve played scores of different recordings, but the only one that truly satisfies is this one, Muti’s 1979 recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Much like Previn and the LSO’s performance of The Planets, he finds the music in the work that no one else seems to.
For his 1979 review of the Mussorgsky, Robert Layton in the GRAMOPHONE writes of Muti and The Philadelphia Orchestra :
…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 writes:
…Muti’s reading is second to none and the orchestral playing is altogether breathtaking. The recording is amazingly lifelike and truthful.
What The Best Sides of This Wonderful EMI Pressing Have to Offer Is Not Hard to Hear
- The biggest, most immediate staging in the largest acoustic space
- The most Tubey Magic, without which you have almost nothing. CDs give you clean and clear. Only the best vintage vinyl pressings offer the kind of Tubey Magic that was on the tapes in 1979
- Tight, note-like, rich, full-bodied bass, with the correct amount of weight down low
- Natural tonality in the midrange — with all the instruments having the correct timbre
- Transparency and resolution, critical to hearing into the three-dimensional studio space
No doubt there’s more but we hope that should do for now. Playing the record is the only way to hear all of the qualities we discuss above, and playing the best pressings against a pile of other copies under rigorously controlled conditions is the only way to find a pressing that sounds as good as this one does.
That EMI Sound
Produced in 1979, naturally there would have to be a slightly multi-miked quality to the recording. If you’ve been playing true Golden Age records all day (the way we often do) you will notice that the instruments are more naturally and correctly spaced and sized on the best of those recordings.
But, this is still a KNOCKOUT record, one which is guaranteed to bring any stereo to its knees. The dynamics, the deep bass and the sheer power of the orchestra are going to be a tough test for any system.
What does the typical EMI pressing of this album sound like?
To be honest, not good. Sour brass, smeary or shrill strings, a lack of bass — the mid-hall dead-as-a-doornail sound that those of us who’ve played these EMI’s by the dozens have come to expect. Most of the copies we’ve played are spacious, but so what? The timbre of the instruments is often unnatural and in my book that trumps any benefits in the areas of soundstaging or depth.
What We’re Listening For on Pictures at an Exhibition
- Energy for starters. What could be more important than the life of the music?
- The Big Sound comes next — wall to wall, lots of depth, huge space, three-dimensionality, all that sort of thing.
- Then transient information — fast, clear, sharp attacks, not the smear and thickness so common to these LPs.
- Tight punchy bass — which ties in with good transient information, also the issue of frequency extension further down.
- Next: transparency — the quality that allows you to hear deep into the soundfield, showing you the space and air around all the instruments.
- Extend the top and bottom and voila, you have The Real Thing — an honest to goodness Hot Stamper.
Only the better pressings provide the presence and immediacy needed to involve you completely in the work. The strings on the good copies have rosiny texture. The brass has weight — perhaps 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, which it rarely does on the Golden Age recordings I’ve auditioned.
Il Vecchio Castello
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
The Firebird (Suite) (Stravinsky)
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.
The Firebird – Carnegie Hall Website
The Paris-based Ballets Russes acquired fame, if not fortune, through the staging of exotic ballets on Russian themes. The company’s ingenious impresario Sergei Diaghilev knew that to make ends meet he needed to present French theatergoers with a Russia that was spellbindingly barbaric, fantastic, and flickering with the flames of revolution. The ballets that Stravinsky composed for Diaghilev between 1910 and 1913 trafficked in these neo-nationalist stereotypes. The third of them, a parable of virgin sacrifice on the ancient Slavic steppe called The Rite of Spring, earned Stravinsky his greatest success, though less because of the music than the choreography. The performance featured dirty dancing (muddy rather than sexual) and, combined with the music, its premiere precipitated a near-riot.
In contrast, Stravinsky’s first Diaghilev ballet, The Firebird, made Russia chic, cool. The look of the ballet was so dazzling as to influence French fashion, and the music provided relief from the somber prevailing trends of Impressionism and Expressionism.
Ironically, nothing in the ballet was original. The scenario is a kasha of Russian fairytale and myth, the most important characters being the good Prince Ivan, the evil Kashchei the Deathless, and the mythical Firebird. In the first tableau, Ivan dances his way into the supernatural realm of Kashchei and becomes trapped after falling in love with one of the 13 princesses whom, Ivan belatedly learns, are being held against their will. (Kashchei is operating the folkloric equivalent of a brothel.) In the second tableau, Kashchei’s spell is broken, his kingdom dissolved, and the princesses freed. Throughout, the Firebird serves as Ivan’s magical helper.
The ballet’s choreographer, Michel Fokine, is seen as an innovator, freeing ballet from the grip of moribund classical technique. The dramatic structure of The Firebird, however, does not differ that much from an old-fashioned pas d’action. The music is likewise rooted in the past, still under the powerful spell that Stravinsky’s teacher Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov cast. As in Rimsky’s fairytale operas, “good” in The Firebird is denoted by consonant harmonies and tonalities, evil by generous splashes of chromaticism and tone-semitone (octatonic) scale segments. The hero, Ivan, is associated with the guilelessly soulful Russian folk: His theme is based on a Russian protyazhnaya, a “melismatic” song expressing melancholic sentiments. There are two borrowings in the score from Rimsky-Korsakov’s collection of 100 folksongs: “In the Garden,” assigned to the oboe for the round dance of the princesses; and “By the Gate the Pine Tree Swayed,” given to the French horn in the ballet’s glowing apotheosis.
What turned The Firebird from derivative potpourri into a masterpiece is Stravinsky’s updating and backdating of the lessons Rimsky-Korsakov taught him. The magic lies in the elaborate orchestration and the excitingly uneven rhythmic writing. Stravinsky changes the orchestration of his themes at each repetition, breaks them down into their constituent parts, pushes their accents across the bar-line, and moves them out of sync with their own accompaniments. He made the folklore at the heart of the score fantastic, giving French audiences the exotic Russia of their imaginations.