For audiophiles of all stripes, The Power of the Orchestra, a 1962 Kingsway RCA, produced by Charles Gerhardt and engineered by Kenneth Wilkinson, is the stuff of legends.
A top ten classical vinyl on most lists.
Gerhardt probably came up with the cool name—he was one of the most enlightened musicians/producers working at the time—but in reality, it’s simply a recording of Mussorgsky’s two best loved works, Night on Bare Mountain and Pictures at an Exhibition.
As the highly imaginative composer was such a massive piss artist, he could never get his shit together. Missed deadlines, missed opportunities and lost weekends ruled his life. Night on Bare Mountain was originally Night on Bald Mountain which originated from a tone poem, St. John’s Eve on Bald Mountain (1867). It couldn’t get a performance. He cobbled in some vocals and shoehorned the music into his opera The Fair at Sorochyntsi, also unperformed in his lifetime. Seeing a pattern?
Pictures was originally written for piano, and demonstrated Mussorgsky’s genius for musical painting, melody and harmony. A great pianist, say Richter (Philips—Live in Sofia), can allude to the mass and heft of the work with only 88 keys. But the music is so colourful and charismatic, it cries out for orchestration. Maurice Ravel’s was so brilliant, others giving it a go, gave up. It’s the Ravel we hear on The Power of the Orchestra.
For Night, the history is obviously complicated and is not clarified by the famous and often-performed Rimsky-Korsakoff arrangement (though, it works superbly as an orchestral showpiece) and the Stokowski/Disney effort for Fantasia. Here, we have the fine French conductor/composer René Leibowitz throwing his hat in the arrangement ring for this recording. As well as conductor.
The arrangement is a bit of a mess, with thunder sheets, wind machines, the lot. More cartoonish than Fantasia and not what the highly original composer would have wanted. The arrangement even lightens the bass drummer’s load—which defeats some of the intent of audiophile glamour.
We get very fine playing from what was still Tommy Beecham’s hand picked band. When Beecham died in 1961 and the funding started to dry up, some of the Royal Phil’s famous players decamped for other London orchestras, but this 1962 recording retained a lot of the very best players and it shows. The performance doesn’t displace the Reiner/Chicago Shaded Dog Pictures, easily the finest performance and recording on record. But, it’s a close second and features superb ensemble and the most wonderful, characterful solos—trumpet & horn are superlative on the LP.
The Leibowitz Night arrangement will make you dizzy but his conducting and interpretation of Pictures are first rate.
I find the sound on this record overrated.
Now, before you jump all over me, let me explain.
I first heard about this record from an old friend in Toronto many years ago. He raved about it. I heard his original copy on an entry level system and it was, indeed, excellent.
Later, and then recently, I heard the Chesky reissue. Also, very fine, if lacking the last ounce of subtlety. But, the ‘Power’ was certainly there.
Now comes a version from vaunted Analogue Productions (AP). I’ve never heard a bad LP from AP, and its Power of the Orchestra is up there in the brilliance stakes. So, it took me a while to figure out why the less than 10/10 rating (let’s call it a 9.5). And, as I was expecting an 11, a little overrated.
As usual with AP, the LP reissue was treated with kid gloves. It was mastered by Ryan K. Smith at Sterling Sound from the original 3-track master tapes, cut at 33 1/3, and plated and pressed at Quality Record Pressings on 200g vinyl. My copy is flawless and looks amazing with a vibrant, original cover in high quality stock.
As for the recording, there’s some highlighting by Wilky (xylophones and pizzicato violins literally jump out of the speakers) but Ravel’s amazing percussion writing sounds equal to the Chicago players. You’ll love the bass drum, snare and cymbals. But, listen carefully to the horn and trumpet solos. They are placed perfectly in the Kingsway Hall acoustic and sound very beautiful. I have a Twitter DM into the RPO to get the correct names, but I’m thinking Elgar Howarth for solo trumpet and Alan Civil on horn. I’ll update if the information comes in.
In general, the Kingsway acoustic is typically transparent and very dynamic and allows the accurate timbres of the instruments and their famous players to the fore. I can’t imagine what a pleasure it would have been to play in that acoustic (now, ripped and gutted into a hotel!). My flute professor at Trinity College of Music, London (1977-82) was Harold Clarke, Principal Flute at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and on all those famous late ‘50s and early ‘60s RCAs. I should have asked him.
The name of the record implies a ‘theme’ release. Stereo was fairly new and still a bit of a novelty, especially in Blighty with all those small ‘front rooms’ and a single Quad ESL 57 in front of the gas fire.
So, scrubbed clean of its legendary status, the cool title, the Shaded Dog lineage, what do we have? Very good performances of a masterpiece and a musical nonsense exercise. In very good sound.
And, before you think ‘YOU should hear it on MY system’, my reference system features some incredibly good, synergistic equipment. The room? Well, that’s for another time.