Miles and I just thought it would be fun to start a regular post on Reference Recordings. Our idea is to pick a work or two each week and to give our recommendations on what we think are our 1-2 favorite vinyl recordings of these works. Where there are really exceptional digital versions to consider, we will also include those, since we certainly don't want to exclude any readers who prefer CDs or downloads to LPs, but our main focus will really be on LPs.
What we'd really like to encourage, though, is for readers and followers of Miles to Mozart to chime in with their own recommendations by commenting on these blog posts. If you have an absolute favorite, or if you'd like to make a comment regarding the recommendations, please feel free to do so!
This week, we have selected Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, as orchestrated by Maurice Ravel. A long time orchestral showpiece and one of my (and my two and a half year old son's) absolute favorites, there is no paucity of recordings for this work, but I certainly have my favorite(s).
1. RCA LIVING STEREO LSC-2201
Fritz Reiner, conductor
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
This is a classic recording with an outstanding performance and incredible sound. In fact, it may be the most natural sounding Pictures recording I have ever heard, and I have heard plenty. While there are no weaknesses in this performance, I just want to mention that the brass -- the legendary CSO brass -- are superb.
Dynamic range is wide. The hall acoustics are nicely captured. To my ears, it feels like you are seated a few rows back at Orchestra Hall (now the Chicago Symphony Center).
According to Jonathan Valin's RCA Bible:
"One of JM's original Top 16. I don't agree with Tom Port on this one, which he thinks is overrated. Although I'd give the nod to the sonics on Power of the Orchestra, the Reiner is still a top disc and as powerful and incisive a performance of this warhorse as can be found on vinyl (save, of course, for Richter's incomparable solo piano version). Pictures is the Car & Driver road test of stereo recordings -- filled with every color & dynamic nuance that an orchestra is capable of producing (what a superb piece of orchestration by Ravel) -- and for that very reason it has probably been recorded more times in the stereo era than any other orchestral work. Every instrument gets its say in Pictures (oftimes at the top of its voice) which makes the piece a notorious challenge to record. All I can say is that Layton & Mohr (who are the ones responsible for this disc) rose to the challenge. String tone is, for the most part, unusually sweet and ravishing. Brass & winds are full-bodied and well focused (although not as full-bodied & focused as the Dorati/Mercury version). Cellos & violas are superb. Basses, low brass, & timpani are superior -- with good slam and "floor" on tuttis. Midrange dynamics while not first-rank are still quite fine. Ambiance is well-reproduced (although the close-miking gives you less of a sense of hall volume than other top RCA's I can think of). Nit picks: string & wind tone are a bit uneven, occasionally verging on edgy dry brightness; string choir detail is occcasionally slightly congealed; and the recording is miked closely -- so the orchestra is up-front and quite present, although not irritatingly so. But those nits don't outweigh the virtues of this disc. Recorded November, 1957 -- with five mikes (according to Michael Gray). [TP feels that later pressings are superior on this disc, and I agree. The 7s/8s demo I have is dynamically constricted.]
Though my recommendation is based on the original RCA stereo shaded dog release, this has had its iterations in the reissue catalog. I have not heard the Classic Records reissue, but I hear that the new Analogue Productions reissue is worth auditioning. I am still considering it. This has also been remastered for CD, SACD, and XRCD.
Riccardo Muti, conductor
This one also has famed audiophile status and may be more famous as a MFSL reissue. The performance also packs a powerful punch. This one feels a little more closely miked than the Reiner, but it sports greater dynamic range and superior clarity. Just listen to the Baba Yaga movement, the first track on side 2, and tell me that that bass drum doesn't have a visceral effect on you. As a bonus, you also get Stravinsky's Firebird suite.