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Although Modest Mussorgsky originally wrote Pictures At An Exhibition for the piano, it was Maurice Ravel, some 48 years later in 1922, who produced the orchestral canvas that we know and love today. Classic FM picks the five best recordings of this glorious orchestration of Mussorgsky’s descriptive musical tribute.
It was written as a tribute to Mussorgsky’s good friend the architect and painter Viktor Hartmann, who died in 1873. In 1874 around 400 of Hartmann’s works were displayed at an exhibition in St Petersburg which the composer visited.
Mussorgsky subsequently wrote his piano suite inspired by some of the paintings, but sadly no one paid much attention to it until Ravel’s glorious orchestration, which was commissioned by the Russian conductor Sergey Koussevitzky.
Many composers, among them Rimsky-Korsakov, and the celebrated conductor and arranger Leopold Stokowski have come up with their own take, but it’s Ravel’s version that’s the most commonly played and recorded.
In 1957, the Hungarian-American conductor Fritz Reiner took his world-renowned Chicago Symphony Orchestra into the studio and made a thrilling recording. The immaculate brass announce their intentions right from the opening Promenade.
Not even the slight tape hiss on this otherwise technically proficient recording diminishes the intricate detail on offer, as in The Market-Place at Limoges, in which market women are depicted entering into some lively gossip.
Mariss Jansons and the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra are particularly adept here in a bustling account. They’re also suitably characterful in the lumbering Bydlo (Polish farm cart), in which the solo tuba – and indeed the whole orchestra – is perfectly controlled; likewise in Unhatched Chicks.
However, the Ukraine National Symphony Orchestra under Theodore Kuchar really does mimic those cheeping chicks most persuasively, in what is an eight-year-old recording of great clarity, rendering it something of a sonic spectacular. A most sensual saxophone solo in The Old Castle and a thunderous climax in The Great Gate Of Kiev are also impressive.
Both Claudio Abbado and Simon Rattle, at the helm of their mighty Berlin forces of 1993 and 2007 respectively, are equally powerful in this epic final picture – but not before they’ve let their ferocious German engines loose on the penultimate Baba-Yaga (The Hut On Fowl’s Legs), with perhaps Abbado the more disciplined and focused. In fact, overall, the Italian maestro is more searching and his recording has greater transparency and depth.
As for the pick of the exhibits, well Kuchar and his Ukraine musicians on Naxos convincingly give this masterpiece a make-over that is irresistible. It’s a kaleidoscope of rich and pastel colours that is skillfully captured by the engineers. A worthy winner, enticingly available at bargain price, too.
THE RECORDING TO OWN
Ukraine National Symphony Orchestra/Theodore Kuchar
An exceptional disc in every way: first-class playing and good-quality sound – all available for around a fiver! This should not be missed.
■ Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner
Here the outstanding playing and astonishing 1950s sound warrant the "classic" tag.
RCA Red Seal 82876 61394 2
■ Berlin Philharmonic/ Claudio Abbado
Abbado’s attention to detail is beautifully executed by an orchestra on top form.
DG 445 2382
■ Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra/Mariss Jansons
A highly descriptive and refined account that easily ranks among the best.
EMI Classics 350 8242
■ Berlin Philharmonic/ Simon Rattle
This irrepressible partnership paints rich and luscious colours.
EMI Classics 517 5822