When Serge Koussevitsky commissioned Maurice Ravel to do an orchestration of Mussorgsky's piano cycle ''Pictures at an Exhibition,'' neither musician could have known what an instant hit would be created.
Certainly, Ravel gave a new lease on life to the work, and gave great orchestras the world over one of the grandest exhibitions of dazzling virtuosics in the orchestral canon. A performance of this work that does not exploit great orchestra playing misses half the point of the piece.
One of the greatest orchestras, the Chicago Symphony, is featured on four performances currently available. RCA has just released the classic Fritz Reiner reading on its ''Red Seal .5 Series'' (ATL1-4268) of half-speed remastered performances. It shows one of the great conductors in top form, letting each section of that orchestra revel in its ability to make gorgeous, now-visceral, now-haunting music. To be reminded how great this orchestra was under Reiner, one need look no further than this reissue.
The current music director, Sir Georg Solti, restored the Chicago to greatness, and his account of ''Pictures'' shows us just how different the orchestra is today, and how marvelously well it plays (London Digital LDR-10040 ). Solti is unexpectedly mellow and probing throughout - brassy when needed, but sensitive as well. The filler, Ravel's ''Le Tombeau de Couperin,'' receives a bracing performance. The sound is everything one could ask for, though lacking the extra warmth of acoustics heard on the Giulini performance, recorded in analogue (i.e., in predigital times).
Also, Raphael Kubelik's mono version of ''Pictures,'' on Mercury Golden Imports, and Carlo Maria Giulini's dazzling Deutsche Grammophon stereo account offer numerous aural felicities.
Sound mavens need search no further than Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs half-speed remastering of the Angel performance with Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra (MFSL 1-520). This is the most handsome Mobile Fidelity classical release to date. Every scrap of sound that's to be found has been captured in the grooves, and projected with spaciousness and warmth on silent vinyl. Curiously, Muti seems in a terrible rush to get on with the piece, and the opening ''Promenade'' is strident, even ugly. But the sound is persuasive - the Philadelphia in peak form - and by the end Muti allows his players to soar out with thrilling presence and thrust so that one can overlook performance flaws and enjoy both ''Pictures'' and the Stravinsky ''Firebird'' suite, which is the generous filler.
RCA Red Seal has just released Eduardo Mata's performance of ''Pictures'' with the Dallas Symphony (Digital ARC1-4573), which is well recorded, yet performed slightly oddly. Mata seems intent on reminding us of his presence, and most of those intrusions sound merely eccentric rather than revealing. As with the Solti, Ravel's ''Tombeau'' fills out the record, and Mata gives it a graceful account. The orchestra is not ultra-virtuosic, but it gets through with panache.
Sir Colin Davis tries very hard to show us that Ravel conceived of this orchestration in refined, contained French terms. The results are what might be expected if someone tried to make a bear masquerade as a toy poodle. The Concertgebouw tries to comply, and the unique qualities of that ensemble vanish in the attempt, stifled by Davis's repression of the slightest hint of Slavic energy (Philips Digital 9500 744). The filler, Rimsky-Korsakov's reworking of Mussorgsky's ''A Night on Bald Mountain,'' is decently done. The sound throughout this disc is curiously muddied, not at all what one hears on the Bernard Haitink recordings with the same orchestra on the same label.
Lorin Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra run through ''Pictures'' with all the virtuosity one could ask for, and the sound (on TELARC DG 10042) is quite remarkable. But one is constantly aware of a conductor reminding his listeners of his presence with a string of interpretive gimmicks that disfigure the music and say a good deal about the conductor's approach to music in general. As with the Davis recording, ''Bald Mountain'' is the filler.
Claudio Abbado seems to have little to say about ''Pictures'' at all, and his reading with the London Symphony Orchestra has no profile whatever. It is a dutiful run-through with no magic, few insights, no discernible viewpoint. This is such a turnaround from a conductor who used to breathe fire into everything he touched. The filler, Ravel's ''La Valse,'' receives a similar sort of performance. Nonetheless, the sound on this record is commendable (DG Digital 2532 057).