Pictures at an Exhibition – the Oliver Knussen/Cleveland Orchestra version

Over the holidays, I needed something good to play in the car while my family and I drove around wine country in Paso Robles, so I busted out this Cleveland Orchestra version of Stokowski’s arrangement of Mussorgsky‘s Pictures at an Exhibition I got a couple years ago. 

For those who really want to embrace classical music, or specifically Romantic music, but need to hear some vital and accessible tunes to lead the way, I can’t recommend Pictures at an Exhibition enough.  It’s a series of ten little ditties, each one a musical landscape or miniature based on a picture the listener would be seeing if they walked through a specific gallery.  The songs go from light to dark to heroic as the pictures progress, with a “promenade” theme helping to ease the listener in and leading from one section of paintings to the next.

The reason for this version’s greatness is the clarity of the gloom and light that permeates the various paintings.  Picture #8, “the Catacombs,” and Picture #9, “The Hut on Hen’s Legs (Baba Yaga),” are quite dark and not a little bit witchy.  And I’ve never heard a bettter version of Picture #5, “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks.”  Oliver Knussen gets the his string section to sound soooo much like little baby chicks chirping!  This portion of the recording is so clear and evocative that I doubt it will ever be bested (at least to my tastes).

The only problem with this CD is that in its bonus tracks, it’s a little more restrained than it needs to be.  For example, Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” perhaps his most famous and witchy song of all (completed for him sorta by Rimsky-Korsakov after his death), here lacks a little of the rattle of doom that the kettle drums can provide in a more nearly over-the-top version.  Ditto for the sinewy strings and bone-dry cymbal crashes.  But still, this remains a very powerful CD to get one into Mussorgsky and into Romantic sound paintings.

If that doesn’t work for you, of course, there’s always Disney’s satanic approach:

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