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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures from an Exhibition (orch. Peter Breiner) [40:32]
Songs and Dances of Death (orch. Breiner) [18.39]
The Nursery (orch. Breiner) [19:17]
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Peter Breiner
rec. Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, 7-9 February 2012.
Recorded in 24-bit/96 kHz format
5.1 Surround Ė DTS-HD Master Audio and 2.0 Stereo Ė PCM
NAXOS NBD0036 BD-A [78:26]

Aware that I was about to review this recording in blu-ray audio, I deliberately avoided reading the two reviews of the CD version which had already appeared on MusicWeb International. However, I remembered from listening to a download-only release that I reviewed in a Download News (2012/20 Ė incidentally I misquoted the catalogue number: itís 8.570316) that Peter Breinerís orchestration throws in just about everything except the kitchen sink, deploying 104 players in all. This, even more than the familiar Ravel orchestration and the less familiar Stokowski, makes it the antithesis of the piano original, a new recording of which has recently appeared from Steven Osborne on Hyperion (CDA67896).

Iím not a great fan of that piano original, though Geoffrey Molyneux has written about the Hyperion recording in Download News 2014/2 in such a way that I plan to listen to it. It was the mono OSR/Ansermet LP of the Ravel orchestration, (Decca Ace of Clubs ACL48, with Ravel La Valse) that introduced me to Pictures from an Exhibition. From long acquaintance Ė itís a work that I like to wallow in whenever I hear it Ė that was the version in the back of my mind when listening to Peter Breinerís new arrangement, especially as I also enjoyed hearing Ansermetís more accurate but slightly less unbuttoned stereo remake not too long ago (Decca Eloquence 4800047 Ė review).

I had already refreshed my memory of the Breiner recording by listening to the low-bit streamed version from Naxos Music Library before the high-quality version arrived in a batch of blu-ray audio discs. Even in that lowish-fi format the sound is pretty impressive. Some of the differences between the Ravel and Breiner orchestrations are apparent, even in the opening Promenade. I like this more now than on first acquaintance when I thought it too slow The concluding Great Gate of Kiev especially benefits from the Breiner treatment and blu-ray sound. Itís a blockbuster in any version and a great disappointment when you discover that the gate itself exists only as a painting and was never built.

Incidentally, though I find the Naxos Music Library a very effective way of previewing recordings that I want to listen to, I do wish that they would produce a way of streaming the music without gaps between tracks. Other players, even the free Windows Music Player, now avoid that problem, yet even Naxosís new player still breaks up operas and other music such as Pictures which is continuous across tracks.

The extra bite which Breiner achieves in Gnomus, complete with glissandi which Ďimproveí on the piano original, really puts his version on course to vie with the Ravel. At this point Iíd better come clean and quote the Naxos booklet, quoting me from 2012, to the effect that this new recording challenges the Ravel orchestration more effectively than any version except the Stokowski which I heard on a Proms broadcast c.1966; it impresses without ever going over the top. I confidently predicted the release of the album as a regular CD and even a follow-up on blu-ray.

Having nailed my colours to the mast on the orchestration and performance Ė and I see that Paul Corfield Godfrey and John Whitmore are more or less of like mind Ė I must ask the $64,000 question whether itís worth paying more for the 24/96 version, either from, as reviewed in 2012, or on the new blu-ray release. Typically the CD costs around £6 in the UK, the 16-bit lossless download from £5.49, and the blu-ray audio around £10, while the 24/96 download costs $25.78 (around £15.80 at current exchange rates). Very worthwhile as the latter was when it was the only 24-bit show in town, it has to seem uncompetitive now except for those whose shelves are already groaning with too many physical discs, especially as blu-ray discs take up twice as much space as CDs.

As between the 24-bit download and the blu-ray played in stereo, thereís very little to choose. I canít make a direct comparison because I play 24-bit downloads in the study and can transfer them only via USB stick in 16-bit sound to the system in the lounge to which my blu-ray/SACD player is linked but the two systems are broadly comparable, with Monitor Audio floor-standing speakers delivering the music in both cases.

In both formats the recording is excellent, with detailed stereo placement yet a broad sound-stage with no holes in the middle. These Pictures will knock your socks off, but the more economical scoring of the other two works is equally effective and they make generous fillers. Donít be tempted to turn the volume up too high in the quieter passages; thereís a wide dynamic range on these recordings.

If your blu-ray player is linked only to your TV set you wonít benefit from the BD-A sound quality. For that you need to have the player hooked into your audio system Ė in my case I have the more expensive blu-ray/SACD player, Cambridge Audio 650BD (replaced by the 651BD) connected in that way, with a less expensive but still very satisfactory Sony player linked to the TV. Donít worry about not having your TV screen to guide you Ė if your player doesnít automatically recognise the disc, simply follow the advice on the Naxos box and press red for surround sound or green for stereo.

Pictures from an Exhibition Ė surely thatís the correct title, not Pictures at an Exhibition, as Naxos and others have it* Ė is music thatís tailor-made for the highest-fi currently available. Even the mono Ansermet made my cartridge jump a groove until I bought a decent Garrard turntable and arm. The stereo remake, hailed in its time, also still sounds impressive on Eloquence, but I canít help thinking that Breinerís orchestration was made at least partly with modern 24-bit recording in mind. Of the five Naxos blu-rays which I have recently received for review, this benefits most from the BD-A format. Donít run away with the idea that itís the equivalent of those showy demonstration discs of the early stereo era, but I certainly recommend it in that form. Unless you have already purchased the CD or the download you should give serious consideration to paying that little extra for blu-ray.

* Hyperion get the title right on that Osborne recording.

Brian Wilson

Previous reviews (CD): Paul Corfield Godfrey and John Whitmore

Masterwork Index: Pictures from an exhibition