Two things conspired to keep me from discovering this one-of-a-kind 'Pictures at an Exhibition' sooner. First, there are enough great recordings to go around from Reiner, Karajan, Stokowksi--name your own. Second, I assumed that Bernstien would conduct this thrice-familiar piece simply as a commercial duty. I was wrong: this is the most personal performance among the great ones. Bernstein has ideas and feelings in every section, and with the NY Phil. at its virtuosic best, the whole thing is an enchanting discovery.
Bernstein's secret is that he goes to the heart of the music rather than just conducting Ravel's brilliant orchestration. As a result, we feel we are looking at separate paintings on the wall, just as Mussorgsky intended, each with its own flavor, more often than not tinged with melancholy (after all, Mussorgsky's artist friend had died). Compared to this account, all the others I own seem a bit shallow and glittery--this one is pure soul.
The sound is impeccable in the current remastering, and we get two outstanding fillers. First, a thrilling Night on Bald Mountain that gives Stokowski's a run for its money while retaining more musical integrity. Second, Bernstein accompanies his great fried, mezzo Jennie Tourel, in four Songs and Dances of Death (in clean early Fifties mono). It's interesting to hear a non-Slavic voice in these pieces, and our two performers are so ebullient that they turn in one of the least grim versions on disc.