While Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker's performance of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition doesn't sound much like Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, it is still a fantastic performance of eye-popping audacity and jaw-dropping virtuosity. The reason Mussorgsky's Pictures doesn't sound like Mussorgsky's Pictures, of course, is that this is really Ravel's Mussorgsky's Pictures. But never before has the work sounded so little like the work of a nineteenth century Russian nationalist composer and so much like the work of a twentieth century Russian internationalist composer -- to wit, Igor Stravinsky. In Rattle's interpretation, Ravel's Mussorgsky's Pictures is really Ravel's take on Stravinsky's take on nineteenth century Russian nationalism. To be specific, Rattle's colors sparkle with brilliant percussion, his tempos are quick with rhythms that push and lines that drive, his textures are lucid, his touch is dry, and his tone, while arguably overtly flashy, is in reality objective, almost ironic.
However one finds Rattle's interpretation, there's no denying the Berlin orchestra's consummate virtuosity. While it has made stupendous recordings of the work in the past -- Karajan's 1965 DG stereo recording and Abbado's 1994 Sony digital recording -- this 2007 EMI recording is its best yet. No matter what the score or the conductor ask of them, the Berlin musicians supply undeviating perfection and undeniable satisfaction. The soloists are consistently brilliant and the ensemble uniformly flawless, but even more impressive is the excitement. Though Ravel's score is a standard repertoire item, the Berlin plays it with such irresistible panache that one is continually awed by the performance. In sum, then, anyone who enjoys Mussorgsky's Pictures in its orchestral form should by all means hear this recording.
But they should by all means stay away from the coupling: Borodin's Second Symphony and Polovtsian Dances from his opera Prince Igor. Rattle seems at a loss with the symphony's epic tone and sweeping lyricism and his interpretation seems ad-hoc, even improvised. His Polovtsian Dances come off better because the music's rhythmic vigor suits the English conductor's energetic style and the German orchestra's virtuosic manner, though they still miss its ravishing sensuality. There are many better recordings of both works in the catalog -- try Gergiev's digital Second or Svetlanov's stereo Second and Beecham's full-frontal stereo Dances -- but while these are worth hearing once, they may not be worth hearing twice.