Mussorgsky / The Power of the Orchestra / Leibowitz – Our Shootout Winner from 2011

This review dates from 2011. 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 Shaded Dog pressing of the famous TAS List Super Disc title has TWO AMAZING SIDES, including a side two that is White Hot! We have never heard a copy with such a huge hall sound and so much weight down low. As we said last time we did a shootout for this title in 2007: “DEMO DISC QUALITY ORCHESTRAL SOUND like you will not believe. Folks, it doesn’t get any better than this for huge orchestral dynamics and energy.” 

As you know, if you’ve been on our site for any length of time at all, we’ve made a good number of significant improvements to our stereo and room since 2007, so it’s entirely accurate to say we have never heard this kind of Demo Disc sound for this album until now, because we haven’t!

Side One

A++. The hall is wide and deep as any you will hear. Tons of power and weight down low. A touch dark, otherwise it would have earned the full Three Plus top grade.

Side Two

A+++, White Hot and Hard to Fault! The strings are so richly textured — who does it better than Wilkinson? Cymbal really crash on this side, something you rarely hear correctly reproduced on recordings.

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

Night On Bare Mountain

Night on Bare Mountain, which starts off side one, is not to my liking at all and it NEVER sounds good (in our experience). 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.

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 qualities that bear comment.

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’re a better man than I.

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. Some of the early movements are a bit choppy, even inelegant, but still the drive and energy here carry the day.

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 dometic Angel regular version and the 45 are both awful.)

The Classic with Reiner (LSC 2201)

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.

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