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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) (transcribed for organ by Calvin Hampton) [33:00]
Calvin Hampton (organ)
rec. live, March 1982, Asbury Methodist Church, Rochester, NY, USA.
Transferred from 15ips two-track master tape
HIGH DEFINITION TAPE TRANSFERS HDCD281 [33:00]

Elsewhere on these pages I’ve extolled the virtues of HDTT’s output. There have been a few disappointments though, but then HDTT are dealing with master tapes and LPs of varying quality and vintage. For the technically minded the bold sleeve notes - they don’t really qualify as booklets - list the equipment and processes used in these transfers, which are then made available in a number of physical/downloadable formats. The emphasis is always on high definition, but even as standard CDs the results are pretty impressive.
 
This live recording of organist Calvin Hampton playing his own transcription of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition was made on a two-track 15ips tape by engineer John Profitt. It’s not the first organ transcription or recording of this piece - older listeners may remember Arthur Wills’s spectacular Hyperion LP with its eye-catching prismatic cover - so Hampton does have some competition. It seems he was much better known in the USA - I haven’t come across his name until now - but apart from the audiophile claims of this recording I was keen to see if the transcription lives us to Profitt’s description of the piece as ‘masterful’.
 
First impressions are most promising; the Austin organ is quite closely recorded and Hampton’s clean articulation and bold registrations aren’t at all compromised by an excitable acoustic. If anything there’s a slight dryness to the sound that reminds me of those Sheffield Labs LPs I admired years ago; what this HDTT recording shares with those demo discs is a vivid, yet unexaggerated presentation that rings true in every sense. That may not come across first time around - it certainly didn’t for me - but repeated listening makes all the difference.
 
The transcription itself doesn’t quite measure up to the hype - some may find that Hampton’s broad-brush approach misses the music’s subtle details - but the general outlines are imaginatively drawn. The most dynamic and demanding pictures - The Hut on Fowl’s Legs and The Great Gate of Kiev - sound hefty but not overbearing; as for the more animated ones - The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks and The Market at Limoges - they are well characterised. There’s also a decent pause before the applause kicks in.
 
HDTT’s prices are reasonable so prospective buyers shouldn’t baulk at the disc’s short playing time. As a technical achievement this CD of Pictures is impressive, and I daresay the high-res versions are even more so; that said, those hoping for a big, bravura display à la Arthur Wills may find Hampton’s approach is just too restrained. Indeed, the sleeve note says this transcription ‘met with controversy’ at its premiere, but doesn’t elaborate. It’s certainly entertaining, if not memorable. As with their other releases HDTT’s notes trumpet the technology but don’t pay enough attention to essential details, such as track listings; all too often the latter are sprinkled with careless typos that are at odds with the company’s dedication to excellence elsewhere.
 
This transfer is technically superb; musically it’s much less interesting.
 
Dan Morgan
http://twitter.com/mahlerei  

Masterwork Index: Pictures at an exhibition