MUSSORGSKY: Russian Songs (orch. Markevitch); Pictures at an Exhibition; STRAVINSKY: Symphony of Psalms – Galina Vishnevskaya, sop./ Russian State Academic Choir/ Berlin Philharmonic/ Russian Symphony Orch./ Igor Markevitch – Praga Digitals Reminiscences stereo-only SACD, 71:16 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

I have always admired Igor Markevitch’s conducting. Even though many of his recordings were with second-rate orchestras, much of his music making seems so alive and vital, especially considering he was a polymath and eventually had to give up his compositional activities because he was spread too thin. His Tchaikovsky is among the best available, and he had a great way with contemporary music.

These recordings are some of his best, though to take the last listed first, the Symphony of Psalms, one hears how awful the Russian orchestra is and the choir can barely mange to be in tune a lot of the time. Nonetheless his way with the music is something special, non-sentimental, and tuned into the Byzantine roots of the score, as he always felt that Stravinsky was a religious man and the conductor wanted to make sure this aspect of the work came across.

Though the Symphony was recorded in 1960, on this remastered edition it doesn’t have near the presence as this wonderful Pictures at an Exhibition demonstrates. It was made in 1953, a mono recording, but Praga has done a wonderful job of restoration and faux-stereo, so much so that it sounds like true stereo, with lots of detail and brilliant playing. The performance is superb, one of the best from the orchestra that Karajan was completing his first DGG stereo Beethoven set with at the time.

Lastly, this set of conductor-orchestrated songs by Mussorgsky is simply top notch in every way. The arrangements are thoroughly in the mold of the composer’s own ascetic scoring, with Galina Vishnevskaya’s renditions second to none.

This is an easy recommendation for those who like great conducting and much better than average sound for the period, presented as it has never been before.

—Steven Ritter