February 2000

Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition and Night on Bald Mountain; Holst - The Planets
St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Slatkin (Mussorgsky) or Walter Susskind (Holst)
Classic Records DAD 1027
Released: 1999

by Doug Blackburn

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality *****
Overall Enjoyment ****

[Reviewed on 24/96 DVD]This is another Classic Records 24/96 audio disc that is remastered from original analog tapes. The DVD format permits 91 minutes of music from two LPs to fit on this disc. Vox Turnabout originally recorded these performances in 1975 and 1976. The tapes are in very good shape with only a few very minor glitches and one rather obvious rough spot lasting no more than a fraction of a second early in Pictures.

Performance-wise, the Mussorgsky selections fall into the tone-poem oeuvre rather than the narrative style of some performances. This style of playing is evocative rather than illustrative. There is color and contrast, brightness and dark, but "mind movies" are not developed as some performances of these works are known to do. This is neither criticism nor praise; I suspect there are listeners who either like both styles or have preference for one over the other. The playing is quite good, much as I’ve found with many St. Louis Symphony Orchestra recordings. Here the orchestra seems to be used to convey the state of mind of a refined visitor to the gallery -- a person of status and stature not given to overly emotional thoughts or actions, but someone appreciative of the vision of the artists. Hence the playing is not as spectacular as some version of Pictures and Bald Mountain you may have heard; rather it is more introspective and thoughtful.

You might expect that The Planets, with a different conductor, might be styled somewhat differently, but there is more stylistic similarity than difference. Again the performance is less spectacular than many other performances of The Planets, tending to be more thoughtful and relaxing.

Sound-wise, I could go on and on about the qualities presented here. Several stand out without even referring to listening notes. The purity of horn tone is so incredibly close to what I hear at live concerts that it would seem not possible to get much closer to reality using recording equipment available in the 1970s. You might be able to exceed this level of purity and lack of distortion with the best modern recording equipment, but it would not be a trivial task. Likewise, the detail in the lower registers of cello and all of the range of bass are only possible when the midrange and bass knit with such precision that the brain perceives the sound as real. Bass itself has no detail; all the detail comes from the midrange. If the recording does not perfectly align the midrange and bass, you don’t get good audible bass detail. Here the recordings achieve that perfect knit needed to allow your brain to accept these sounds as real, or at least very nearly so. The recording just misses the dynamic contrasts you experience in live concerts, perhaps intentionally since these analog masters were originally intended for LP.

There are plenty more sonic goodies. The ensemble-violin sound has no harshness whatsoever, just natural, well-integrated tone with all of the harmonics, roundness and tension you hear from live violins. Percussion is clean and undistorted with plenty of pitch definition to pick out different size kettles and snares easily. As with many 24/96 recordings the highs are better than you are used to hearing from 16/44.1 digital. There is more purity of tone, less grayness and none of the strain you are used to. Highs seem unleashed and free to soar compared to the 16/44.1 format.

And compared to LP? I happened to have the Mussorgsky LP in my collection and, honestly, this 24/96 disc is frighteningly more transparent-sounding. And it isn’t from a disparity in playback rigs. The retail price of all of the components in my LP playback system is about five times higher than the cost of the 24/96 playback hardware used for this review. Bear in mind that the Turnabout label was a lower-priced alternative to "the big labels." Turnabout mastering was often not the very best available, though they were always at least "good." This 24/96 disc has one characteristic that I found a bit troubling, however. It is mastered at a much lower level than almost any other 24/96 disc I have auditioned. Putting John Lee Hooker’s excellent Boom Boom [Classic Records DAD 1011] on after this disc nearly scared the ______ (fill in your favorite expletive) out of me because it was so loud.

Ultimately, these Mussorgsky and Holst performances are not my favorites. They may very well could be someone else's favorites though. My ratings for this disc are intended to indicate that the performances are quite good, the sound quality is excellent, but that my personal preferences for the performances would be for something a little more dramatic and colorful. This is a very subjective thing, and I hope that my descriptions of the performances are clear enough for those who might enjoy this disc. This is a great disc provided the performances are to your liking.