Modest Mussorgsky’s masterpiece is just as much Maurice Ravel’s masterpiece: The Russian composer wrote Pictures At An Exhibition for solo piano, but it didn’t take long for other composers and conductors — from Rimsky-Korsakov to Stokowski (we shall not speak of Emerson, Lake & Palmer) — to hear the orchestral possibilities within it. Yet it is Ravel’s familiar orchestration that is almost universally played and recorded. In fact, the piece is now so familiar that we sometimes don’t appreciate the finely detailed palette that Ravel brought to bear. And this is the beauty of Simon Rattle’s performance with the Berlin Philharmonic. The textures throughout this performance are remarkably transparent; in fact, there is even a curious sense of softness around the edges, as if the attacks have been slightly muted — the aural equivalent of an exhibition of paintings in pastels, as opposed to bright oils. So when the sound sharpens in “The Great Gate of Kiev,” for example, you really do snap to attention, and hear again what made this finale so grand and majestic the first time you heard it. Similarly, there are slower versions of “Ox Cart/Bydlo” to be found, but this one really groans and grinds; you can almost feel the effort of the heavy cart trundling down the lane in the breath of the horns.
Throughout, Rattle finds telling moments of orchestral color and reminds us why the piece has become the symphonic favorite it is. The responsiveness of the orchestra also reminds us of how, in his time at Berlin, Rattle has taken this platinum, Central European bastion and turned it into a youthful, international ensemble that still plays to the highest standard.