THE Mussorgsky/Ravel "Pictures at an Exhibition" was the first music to be offered to the public in a digital recording, when Nippon Columbia initiated its Denon label with it in 1972. That performance, by the Tokyo Metropolitian Symphony Orchestra under Louis Fremaux, is a handsome one, and the recording itself is impressive.
It is curious that there have not been dozens of digital versions of this showpiece by now, but the new one by the London Symphony Orchestra under Claudio Abbado (DG 2532.037; cassette 3332.057) seems to be only the fourth to appear since Fre'maux's. Even if there had been more, this one would surely head the list.
The London Symphony Orchestra is surely at the top of its form here, and Abbado shows real commitment as well as power. He manages to find a good deal of the original Slavic character under Ravel's orchestration (an extremely sympathetic one, after all), and he conveys the character of each of the individual "pictures" with subtlety and conviction. I especially like his slow tempo for "Bydlo," which really captures the crude awesomeness of the ox cart's huge wheels; and the concluding "Great Gate at Kiev" comes off as a full-fledged glory rather than an empty display.
Among the other digitally recorded "Pictures," my choice is the one by Solti and the Chicago Symphony on London, a powerful presentation, but perhaps more impressive for the sound itself and the playing of the superb orchestra than for Solti's interpretation. A far more satisfying account is an earlier one by the same orchestra, the magnificent Reiner performance of 1957, as remastered at half-speed on RCA (ATLI-4268). This, in fact, would appear to be the strongest competition faced by the new Abbado.
The old Reiner recording sounds far better than anything of 1957 vintage would seem to have a right to sound, but it cannot be said to have the sort of spaciousness DG has achieved in its new digital recording, and Abbado has a bit of an edge in terms of performance, too. He has yet another advantage in the form of a splendid performance of Ravel's "La Valse" to fill out his disc (no filler with the Reiner "Pictures").
Abbado is far less successful, I'm afraid, in another new DG digital recording, this one of all 21 of Brahms' Hungarian Dances (2560.100). The orchestra in this case is the Vienna Philharmonic, and the playing is first rate. Abbado, however, shows very little feeling for this charming material, and the sound itself is pretty dim in comparison with the marvelous realism of the "Pictures." (Not one word of annotation, by the way.) Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, with his North German Radio Orchestra, showed us just how this music ought to be handled, but his recording, issued here by Vanguard, has not been available for some time; until someone brings it back, the best bet would be Antal Dora'ti's somewhat dated but spirited account of 16 of the 21 dances, with the London Symphony Orchestra, on Mercury (SRI-75024).
The lilt missing in Abbado's treatment of Brahms is very much present in Lorin Maazel's treatment of Dvorak. His digital recording of the Bohemian master's Symphony No. 8 in G, with the same great Viennese orchestra (DG 2532.034; cassette 3302.034), is easily the most appealing since the classic Bruno Walter performance, now on Odyssey (Y-33231).
At the start of the third movement Maazel even indulges in a little caress of the phrase, the sort of thing a Walter or Szell would save for the last statement of the tune instead of the first. I still prefer Walter, or the previously overlooked Munch, back now on an RCA Victrola cassette (AKL1-4628), but if you have to have a new digital recording Maazel's is almost as lovable.
A surprise from Maazel is his attention to the orchestral music of Rachmaninoff. On yet another digitally recorded DG release, he conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in the Third Symphony and "The Isle of the Dead," and both performances are extremely persuasive (2532.065; cassette 3332.065).
Maazel apparently regards this music seriously, and he goes at it without any concession to traditional notions of the sort of sentiment appropriate to scores bearing Rachmaninoff's name.
The Third Symphony, really quite a fascinating and still largely unknown work, receives one of its strongest presentations here, with the central slow movement-cum-scherzo standing out as one of the most imaginative pieces of its kind. The big first movement repeat, taken by Stokowski, Slatkin and Previn, is omitted by Maazel (as it is also by Ormandy), and the work seems tighter and more effective without it. In "The Isle of the Dead" Maazel comes closer than anyone to matching the uniquely persuasive performance by Jascha Horenstein (now on Quintessence PMC-7052, where it is unfortunately followed by a mawkish performance of the "Vocalise" under another conductor).
In sum, this is quite a revelatory release, not only in terms of Maazel's musical sympathies but, more to the point, for the substance discovered in these intriguing works. Highly recommended.