René Leibowitz / Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

The Power of the Orchestra: Mussorgsky - A Night on Bare Mountain, Pictures at an Exhibition

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Analogue Productions' The Power of the Orchestra is a direct re-release of a neglected 1962 RCA Victor Living Stereo LP in the form of a very high-quality SACD. First and foremost it should be said that in all seriousness, the sound is great; it's big, responsive, widely dynamic, and crisp. It wouldn't be true to say that you wouldn't be able to tell that the recording is from 1962; the rather dry ambience of the original recording, it's somewhat limited stereo spectrum, and momentary distortion gives that game away. Nevertheless, this is as multi-dimensional and present as anyone can imagine a 1962 master tape of orchestral music might sound. The album itself, however, is rather an oddity; French conductor René Leibowitz leading the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra through the two best-known orchestral pieces of Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition in Ravel's standard edition, and A Night on Bare Mountain in a version that's anything but standard. Although the notes claim that this version was executed by Leibowitz himself "after extensive research of all the available Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov material," it strongly bears resemblance to Leopold Stokowski's version of around 1940, and he, too, claimed to have consulted the original sources. It's certainly not the same as Stokowski's, but it is compiled with the same attitude: it's basically the Rimsky-Korsakov version with a lot of added stuff; percussion instruments are brought up front, there's even a hint of wind machine between the end of the witches' Sabbath and the opening of the "Matins bell" conclusion. Thankfully, apart from some weird rebalancing of wind and percussion parts, Pictures at an Exhibition is not similarly tricked out; it's a decent -- and very French -- performance.

Despite being best known as author of the 1947 textbook Schoenberg and His School, René Leibowitz made some very, very fine recordings for RCA Victor, particularly his set of Beethoven symphonies marketed on the Reader's Digest label; his early stereo recordings of operetta, made in France in the late '50s, are likewise noteworthy. While The Power of the Orchestra is an interesting album, particularly within the domain of early stereo recordings, it really isn't in the same class as the other recordings mentioned above, and one wonders why this was chosen for reissue over so many possible options languishing in the RCA vaults, now with Sony. As a conversation piece for audiophiles -- a shrinking lot, it appears, in the age of mp3s -- it may well still have some cachet. But Leibowitz's version of A Night on Bare Mountain merely adds yet another voice to the cluttered conversation regarding this work, which exists in no less than three wildly different "authoritative" versions and countless others. Pictures at an Exhibition is good, but not competitive in a field already heavy with recordings of the work. Final score: awesome sound quality: 1, Mussorgsky: 0.

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