Let me say up front that I am a diehard Rattle fan. I consider him to be thriving at the Berlin Philharmonic, and I don't think the Berliners could have chosen a better conductor. I've almost never heard an album from him and the Berliners that I had serious reservations about. Almost, that is. This disc, containing Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and Borodin's Symphony No. 2 and the Polovtsian Dances, strikes me as his biggest miss with his orchestra, due to his fussiness and what often turn out to be a lack of imagination. But I'll have to admit that there are wonderful moments on this disc, despite the lack of clear vision throughout.
I'll begin by looking at the Pictures at an Exhibition. Always on the lookout for a chance to bring out hidden details, Rattle has more opportunity in this work (after all, these little pieces that make up the work are pictures) than he could possibly hope for. But he doesn't succeed in this way as we might hope. Sure, the Berliners play marvelously for him, but there's a painful lack of spontaneity. Rattle often seems to deliver mere superficial brilliance instead of real artistic excellence. Rattle can struggle with fussiness, and here he's fussier than ever. But even when he's fussy, there are often unique things that he has to say that makes his approach memorable. Surprisingly enough, I can't say the same thing here. The Berliners show off their technical ability (they've got to be the world's greatest orchestra), but lacking is any sign of real interest from Rattle.
The Borodin 2nd Symphony fares much better, although it's still far from perfect. Rattle seems to have awaked, to an extent, but he still seems fussy, preferring to wallow in the beauty of individual notes and phrases instead of giving Russian soul. That's not to say that can't both pay attention to miniscule details and have a satisfying, comprehensive vision; if there's any doubt of that, there's plenty of Rattle albums beckoning, particularly his Brahms and Schoenberg. I never would have thought Rattle could be accused of being too light, but he is here. Why couldn't he have given more fire, especially considering that no other orchestra would be more prepared for such an undertaking?
The two works, Borodin's Polovtsian Dances and Mussorgsky's Introduction to Khovanschina are on about the same level as the preceding symphony. Rattle shows some interest, but the soul I would wish him to display never take over. Considering that this conductor has proven elsewhere that he's on a very high level as an interpreter, couldn't he have given us more here?
In closing, I find this disc disappointing, even though it features wonderful playing from the Berliners. Let's be thankful that Rattle is seen in better moods elsewhere, because it wouldn't be flattering if this was representative of his output.