This 2008 Naxos disc features three wildly different works in equally different performances. The wildest among these works is Rob Mathes' heavily John Williams-influenced orchestral version of The Star-Spangled Banner, which would not be out of place as the closing credit for a patriotic film. Nearly in the same league is the mix-and-match version of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition featuring orchestrations of the individual movements by 15 different arrangers. Most normal is the unadulterated original of Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1.
In terms of performances, however, it is the Liszt concerto that comes off as the wildest, while the orchestrations sound comparatively normal. The reason for this is the reckless, even careless playing of pianist Peng Peng, who bangs away at Liszt's super virtuoso work with as much panache but less skill and restraint than his countryman Lang Lang. With dozens of better recordings of the concerto in the catalog, it's hard to see the appeal of this one.
The same cannot be said of the arrangement of Pictures at an Exhibition. Though the unfamiliar arrangements of Mussorgsky's masterpieces are in most cases less intrinsically interesting than Ravel's familiar orchestra, they are nevertheless still interesting alternatives, and conductor Leonard Slatkin and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra turn in honest and energetic, if not especially, polished performances. As for Mathes' Star-Spangled Banner, Slatkin, and the Nashville players are clearly giving their all to the arrangement. Whether its modernist touches and bombastic peroration work will ultimately depend on the individual listener. Naxos' sound is big and colorful, but distant and a tad unfocused.