MUSSORGSKY-RAVEL:  Pictures at an Exhibition
Royal Philharmonic Orch/RenČ Leibowitz, cond.
Paris Conservatory Orch/AndrČ Vandernoot, cond.


In July 1992 when I wrote a "Basic Library" for Stereophile discussing 37 available recordings of  Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, the Vandernoot performance on this new CD was omitted as it was  not available.  The Reader's Digest/RCA Leibowitz/Royal Philharmonic version was mentioned as "to be released" -- which it never was.  The recording  was made in the early '60s, produced by the late Charles Gerhardt and engineered by Kenneth Wilkinson.  Recorded in Walthamstow Town Hall, it is typical of the spectacular recordings produced by this team.  The sound stage is broad and spacious combined with close-up clarity and impressive dynamic range.  For whatever reason, this performance was not issued on the Digest, but on a special RCA Victor LP entitled "The Power of the Orchestra," (VCS 2659), with a companion LP, "The Power of the Organ," issued simultaneously.  Both stereodisks were, justifiably,  lauded at the time for their outstanding performances and sonic quality. 

Command's performance was recorded in the very early '60s when Enoch Light took his 35mm film recording equipment to the Salle Wagram in Paris to record AndrČ Vandernoot and the Paris Conservatory Orchestra in Pictures, issued on a Command stereodisk (S 11003), never on CD. Now, thanks to ReDiscovery,  we have both of these recordings appearing on CD for the first time

Ravel's orchestration of  the second "picture," The Old Castle, indicates the last two notes of the alto saxophone solo are to be joined glissando.  It is remarkable that this effect can be heard in only one of the many recordings of the work, on London/Decca with Riccardo Chailly and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, inexplicably no longer in the catalog.  One might think that advocates of the score "as written" would have followed Ravel's instructions, but even recordings by Szell, Toscanini, Karajan, Giulini and Solti omit this unique effect -- as do Leibowitz and Vandernoot..

Of the two Pictures reissues, surely the Leibowitz is superior.  The RPO is in top form, the conductor a master of orchestral textures all vividly captured by the engineering team.  The bass drum is subterranean, tam-tam smashes in The Great Gate of Kiev stunning.  The French orchestra has its distinctive lighter sound.  Their playing is sosmetimes tentative; surely they do not match the virtuosity displayed by the English orchestra.  Enoch Light's engineering  provides an outstanding sonic image thankfully leaving out the "ping pong" effects for which, in "pop" music,  he is famous.

It is unfortunate this CD doesn't include the filler on the RCA stereodisk, Night on Bare Mountain arranged by Leibowitz, complete with wind machine and extra percussion at the final climax.  It "out noises" the familiar Stokowski orchestration; perhaps there was a copyright problem that prevented its inclusion. For this, the Gerhardt-Wilkinson team did use the "ping pong" effect, with the xylophone moving from side to side.  Inconsequential as it isn't on this CD. Those who love Pictures will wish to have this CD produced from a virtually silent copy of  RCA's stereo LP, and a Command open-reel stereotape.  Recommended!  It's available only from ReDiscovery.

R.E.B. (Feb. 2001)