Top Ear

Sinopoli’s Splendid Mussorgsky and Ravel

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MUSSORGSKY Pictures at an Exhibition Sinopoli

Jeremy Lee writes

Originals is dead; long live Originals.  Not that it’s been officially discontinued, but it might as well be, because the latest release — Karajan’s Bruckner 8 — was released September last year, and there has been no word of a future Original disc ever since.  Pity.

But of course, Universal won’t let their flagship just die like that without a worthy successor.  Enter First Choice, DG’s “new flagship mid-price series”, and as far as I can see it, while Originals focused on releases previously released on vinyl, First Choice concentrates on re-releasing albums from the early digital era, some (thank God) long out of print and desperate for a reissue.  Sinopoli’s Mussorgsky/Ravel compilation (originally DG 429 785-2) is one of those recordings which had previously languished in limbo, and joy of joys, it’s back on First Choice.

And the best thing is that I have not a single quibble with the performances at all.  Even listeners who avoid Sinopoli and his often highly idiosyncratic ways will find nothing to complain about here:  there aren’t any idiosyncrasies, save for an interesting performance decision at the very last grand statement of the Great Gate of Kiev in the Pictures where Sinopoli decides to speed up while everyone else slows down to a near halt.  Other than that, everything is pretty conventional, and even in the slower bits (The Old Castle and the end of the Night on Bald Mountain, for instance) Sinopoli, surprisingly, refuses to indulge.  (I proposed a theory on this:  Sinopoli must have felt so intimidated by the New York players (a reputedly unruly bunch) that he didn’t dare impose his wacky ways on them as he did with, say, the Philharmonia or the Staatskapelle Dresden .)  On the other hand, when the music gets fast and loud, Sinopoli just flies–hear the Ravel Valses, full of gusto and verve, or the hair-raisingly exciting Night on Bald Mountain, to know what I mean.  The effortless prominence of the lower brass (tuba especially) makes Catacombs of Pictures simply the most electrifying, imposing rendition I have ever heard–not even Giulini/Chicago, tremendous though their brass section no doubt is, can match New York’s for sheer exhilaration.

These superb performances coupled with the excellent sonics, full of clarity, presence, impact and spatial depth, make this an indispensable acquisition for those who love these works.  And may I also ramble on the presentation of the disc:  the extremely well-written booklet notes are brand-new, and they concentrate on this very performance rather than on the work as they do normally, which to me is a delight.  As digital bonuses, you get the original booklet as an exclusive PDF download from DG’s website, as well as Respighi’s Pini di Roma by the same forces (though very well played, it lacks charm and simply isn’t on the same inspired plane as the Pictures–more on that in a future review).  DG’s thoughtfulness is manifest, and I wish the First Choice series (and this album in particular) all the success.


  • Album name:  Mussorgsky:  Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Ravel);  Night on Bald Mountain (orch. Rimsky-Korsakov);  Ravel:  Valses nobles et sentimentales
  • Performers:  Giuseppe Sinopoli (conductor);  New York Philharmonic
  • Label:  DG First Choice 479 0367
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  67:01

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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