Recording of June 1980: Pictures at an Exhibition, Night on Bald Mountain

MOUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition, Night on Bald Mountain
Cleveland Orchestra, Lorin Maazel, cond.
Telarc 80042 (LP). Recorded at Masonic Auditorium, Cleveland, OH. Edited at Soundstream, Inc. Mastered at JVC Cutting Center. Robert Woods, prod.; Jack Renner, eng.; Stan Ricker, mastering eng. DAA.

This is unquestionably the best recording Telarc has done to date. It is almost impossible to fault. If I were to pick nits, I would complain about a slight lack of air in the strings. The rest is, simply, superlatives!

The performances aren't quite that good, unfortunately. While the performances of both works are the best Telarc has gotten yet, Sir Thomas Beecham did a better job with both, but not all that much better, and Beecham's sound was mediocre by today's standards. The featured work, Pictures, is carried off well but without flair. The problem is one of phrasing, not tempos or dynamics. It is most evident in the "Hut on Fowl's Legs," where the rendition lacks incisiveness and bite. Perhaps the cavernous reverb contributes here to the effect of legato when the effect ought to be staccato, but the result is a performance that is less compelling than it ought to be.

It is the flip side that makes the record worth the buying price. Leopold Stokowsky used to do such a hackle-raising rendition of this that all subsequent recordings have sounded tame to the point of ennui. Maazel's is the only alternative recording I have heard that could hold a candle to the old Stokowskis.

With a "purist" mike setup, Telarc has been backing off their mikes with each recording. The Moussorgsky recording was right on. This one, I'm sorry to say, is bit too distant. The overall sound on this is a bit heavy, which means that on a system that gives good balance at high listening levels, this recording will have to be played at a lower level to sound right. (Actually, it sounds more realistic that way because of the Row-M perspective.)

The sound of this LP is absolutely awesome. Buy the record for this, and to Hell with the Pictures. This N on B M may never bettered within our lifetime. I'm willing to bet, though, that if you buy this you won't feel the need to buy another version for many, many years.—J. Gordon Holt

volvic's picture

The sound is not bad, not great by today's standards. Sadly the performance did not knock me off my feet either and that was always the problem with Maazel; he could be a little cold and distant with some of his recordings. Seek his Planets that he recorded in 1982, fine and polished but lacking the fire that Dutoit, Karajan and Previn brought to their recordings. Yet, I still enjoy it. Still not all bad, always loved his Unfinished and Rachmaninoff recordings. He never got the BPO position after Karajan passed and that was hard to accept, as he always wanted that position. Certainly would have been a better choice than Rattle. Thanks for posting, those Telarc recordings from the 80's bring back fond memories.

David Canfield's picture

I don't know who J. Gordon Holt is, but how are we supposed to give credence to someone who makes such an egregious error as citing Beecham's recording of Pictures being superior when the famed English conductor NEVER recorded the work?! (I happen to own every commercial, and a large number of non-commercial recordings of this work--more than 2000 in all).

volvic's picture

He is the founder of Stereophile, probably confused his conductors. Sadly he is no longer with us to reply. Doesn't though take away from the fact that the performance is not the best and he's right about that. Curious as to which Pictures you think is the "gold standard" seeing as how you have so many. There was a Levine DG version that I liked as well as the Abbado, Karajan, Ashkenazy, and Solti versions but I am sure there are better ones.

David Canfield's picture

I never subscribed to Stereophile, so I had no idea Holt was the editor. I'm sorry he's no longer with us, and I'm not sure why this review of his just popped up in my inbox from Google Alerts, given that the review was written way back in 1980! In any case, I cannot answer your question about my top preference for PAE. There are at least a dozen that are really good in my estimation (Reiner, the live Cantelli on Guild CD, and a couple of those you like), but I have not yet listened to ALL of the more than 300 versions of the Ravel orchestration that I own, and probably won't be any time soon...

tonykaz's picture

Thank you for these observations.

I've been a lifelong fan of Cleveland Orchestra so, I ordered the Album which I once owned on Vinyl.

I will also pursue your suggested Recordings.

Thanks for stepping forward,

Tony in Michigan

ps. never heard of PAE but it makes sense.

volvic's picture

On a regular basis Stereophile digs into their archives and pulls out some of its older articles and reviews. This was posted a few days ago. I suspect you have set google alerts to send you anything to do with PAE, hence why you got it in your inbox. cheers