Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra (Slatkin) – ‘Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition’ An SACD review by Mark Jordan

It depends. That’s my answer to the inevitable question this review will raise: Who will want to rush out and buy this disc? Fans of Mussorgsky may not find any new ground covered in this reissue of Leonard Slatkin’s conservative performance of ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’, and devotees to modern digital sound might find that this analogue recording is smoother than an orchestra really sounds live in concert, but aficionados of fine analog sound will be in heaven to hear the creamy richness of this 1975 recording engineered by the legendary Marc Aubort.

Aubort has engineered many recordings over the years, particularly of the Saint Louis Symphony, mostly in partnership with one producer, the late Joanna Nickrenz. They oversaw a long string of recordings that changed the reputation Vox Records had in the 1950’s and 60’s for indifferent sound. Many early Vox recordings of Horenstein and Klemperer were great performances marred by rough recording conditions. Neither of those maestros ever had it as good as what we hear on this disc. The Nickrenz/Aubort recordings did, however, do a great deal to establish the reputation of American conductor Leonard Slatkin, who, as Aubort points out in his technical addendum to the notes, was familiar with the recording production process due to his musical family (his father Felix Slatkin was also a conductor who frequently recorded in the 1950’s for Capitol). Thus Leonard Slatkin was able to work efficiently and effectively under pressured studio conditions.

As Aubort describes it, he used a pair of Schoeps CM 66 microphones for the main front channels in an omnidirectional pickup pattern, along with a few cardioid spot mics to highlight detail. For the rear channels, he set a pair of Schoeps M221b microphones about thirty feet apart in the twelfth row of Powell Symphony Hall in a cardioid pattern to pickup hall sound for the original quadraphonic recording. Many recordings were made during the period with a similar setup, but few end up sounding like Aubort’s. The immediate attraction of this recording for me is the comparatively close pickup of the front channels. Throughout the 1980’s and 90’s, the pursuit of more and more epic sound led to a prevailing trend of ever more distant microphone placement, and frequent slatherings of electronic reverberation. The more intimate sound captured here may not have the exaggerated drama of those latter day recordings, but it retains a freshness that they do not, making it likely to age like a fine wine, whereas the splashiest “epic” recordings of the succeeding decades are already starting to sound quite quaint. Both the close pickup and the analog technology mean that it has a smaller dynamic range that a typical digital recording, but that feature in itself will attract some listeners. Indeed, those who enjoy listening in the car, where extreme dynamic range isn’t ideal, would be well served to buy this hybrid disc just for its CD layer, which handsomely conveys the recording better than any previous reissue. The stereo Super Audio layer increases the depth and texture of the recording noticeably, and the 2/2.0 multichannel layer brings a widened scope to the soundstage, with only light bounceback from the rear channels.

The analog provenance of this recording contributes to the buttery warmth of the sound – as is typically the case, the aggressive, ringing high end of percussion, trumpets, piccolos, and violins doesn’t register well on analog tape, thus creating the oft-cited “warmth” and “comfort” of such recordings. What usually was also lost in analog was bass depth, although Aubort evidently caught a good amount on the original tapes and the Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs technicians were able to draw it out in this remastering, because it captures the sort of bass that makes the air pulse around you when you play it at a robust volume, a feature more common with audiophile digital recordings than old analog tapes! One slight caveat is that there is a low hum which is discernible in places, probably machine noise or room interference picked up during the original sessions. I also looked askance at the highlighting of the timpani in places, a common technique that aids in clarity, though it removes the natural throaty boom of well-played kettledrums and distorts orchestral perspective. In sum, though not for everyone, this is a gorgeous example of how rich and sweet an analog recording can sound after a high definition remastering. Those desiring the velvet plush of analog warmth would be well advised to investigate this release; those more accustomed to live orchestral sound should be aware of its limits. No one who picks this title up for sonic reasons is likely to be disappointed.

In terms of performances, things are not so clear-cut. The poles of interpretive style in the Ravel orchestration and arrangement of Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ (or as my friend Don in England points out, it should be more aptly translated as ‘Pictures from an Exhibition’), were largely defined in the early days of stereo LP’s by Fritz Reiner on RCA and Herbert von Karajan on EMI, and Karajan again later with a remake on Deutsche Grammophon. The 1955 Reiner recording was one of the gems he made with the Chicago Symphony for RCA’s “Living Stereo” series, and it still remains a reference point fifty years later. His approach is straightforward, brilliant without exaggeration. The virtuosity of the Chicago players under Reiner is still impressive, and though the finest modern orchestras can match or surpass them in accuracy, few have the rich, noble tone they displayed. The Karajan approach is brilliant in a more glamorous manner, with broad tempos and the obsessive finesse for which the old wizard was known. I don’t know if the EMI recording has ever made it to Compact Disc, but the Deutsche Grammophon is currently available in their “Originals” series at mid-price. The Reiner was one of the first CD’s RCA put out in the 1980’s, and as a matter of fact, it was the very first CD I ever bought, way back in 1985. It has remained in the catalogue ever since. The RCA tapes have aged more gracefully than the Deutsche Grammophon tapes, although the Deutsche Grammophon remains sufficiently impressive to give a glimpse of the glamour Karajan was after. Most subsequent performances have tended to follow Reiner’s straightforwardness or Karajan’s brilliance. Slatkin here aligns himself more closely to Reiner, although he presided over a flashier remake in the late 1980’s on RCA with the National Philharmonic, one of those recordings from the peak of the CD boom which was available to the public for at least a good fifteen or twenty minutes before the corporate accountants deleted it. But this earlier performance is Reiner-like in its pursuit of accuracy and detail with warmth but without moustache-twirling theatrics.

Among more recent digital recordings, my favorites are Giuseppe Sinopoli and the New York Philharmonic on Deutsche Grammophon, and the controversial but engaging performance by James Conlon and the Rotterdam Philharmonic on Erato, which is not currently available. Sinopoli’s is strong on characterization, but without the waywardness that crept into some of his renditions. It features electrified playing from the New Yorkers, recorded effectively though flamboyantly with a boatload of microphones and a sea of reverb. The Sinopoli also includes a version of Rimsky-Korsakov’s arrangement of Mussorgsky’s ‘Night on Bald Mountain’, which is of a much higher voltage than Slatkin’s on this disc. The Conlon is a similarly probing performance of ‘Pictures…’, but it offers a distinctive angle: Conlon restores the changes that Ravel introduced (some changed notes, altered dynamics). The only problem is that Conlon doesn’t restore everything (the cut promenade, for instance). It is nonetheless a fine performance with a reasonably brilliant sound, though it is admittedly bass-shy. The Conlon disc also includes a suite of orchestral excerpts from Mussorgsky’s unfinished opera ‘Khovanshchina’, in the somber orchestration by Dmitri Shostakovich. Slatkin’s disc includes these items (in a slightly different order) in the more colorful orchestration of Rimsky-Korsakov. The Shostakovich orchestration sounds more appropriate for Mussorgsky’s style, but Slatkin emphasizes the music’s lyricism, thus keeping the focus from moving to the orchestration.

Competitors to the Slatkin ‘Pictures…’ on SACD include the Philips’ multichannel hybrid disc by Valery Gergiev and the Vienna Philharmonic, and the old Telarc recording by Lorin Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra, which was recorded with high-resolution digital technology back in 1978, thus allowing us to have a stereo SACD of it now. I have not heard the high-definition incarnation of the Gergiev recording but the regular CD version is reasonably effective, though lacking any real sense of depth (both acoustically and psychologically!). I just don’t find myself responding to Gergiev’s interpretation. Though he is certainly electrifying and dramatic, his performance seems rushed and impatient. One could imagine Gergiev having his sights set on the flight of Baba-Yaga’s hut from the very beginning of the “Promenade”, and everything is hurried along to get to that wild ride up and into the Great Gate of Kiev. Though Gergiev also includes a crisp ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ and the ‘Prelude’ from ‘Khovanshchina’, it doesn’t capture the genuine melancholy that underlies ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’. Maazel’s Telarc stereo SACD is predictably brilliant and clear in recording, but Maazel takes the piece even less seriously than Gergiev. Maazel offers maximum flash: Great for demonstrating your sound system, but weak for demonstrating Mussorgsky and Ravel’s combined genius. The filler performance of ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ is similarly flashy; however, that piece can take it. Speaking of the Cleveland Orchestra, I might also add that there is a Sony stereo SACD that features George Szell’s Columbia recording of ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’, but surprisingly it did not seem to engage Szell nor the orchestra to any great degree, and is deployed by Sony as filler for a program of various composers instead of as a headliner.

In addition to all this Mussorgsky, the Mobile Fidelity disc also includes Slatkin’s performance of Borodin’s ‘In the Steppes of Central Asia’, an old chestnut that was once so commonly played, everyone apparently got sick of it and stopped playing it. Now it doesn’t pop up nearly as often as it ought to. Not only is it musically evocative, it bears a simple but unforgettable lesson in how disparate groups can weave around each other harmoniously without losing their personal traits. Slatkin’s performance is typically straightforward but warm. He gauges his tempo effectively, not dragging the tempo for emphasis the way Svetlanov did, nor does he rush it with impatience. Indeed, the performance rivals my long-standing favorite, which is by Armenian conductor Loris Tjeknavorian and the National Philharmonic on RCA (no longer available).

In sum, though this is not one of the finest performances of ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’, neither are any of the others on SACD. Thus, if the solidness of Slatkin’s likable performance is sufficient, and especially if one loves rich, creamy analog sound, this disc is recommendable and will bring pleasure. A truly great Super Audio CD ‘Pictures…’ still waits to be born.