The "Great Performances" sobriquet certainly applies to the Philadelphia version of "Pictures at an Exhibition." Ormandy is sometimes accused of stodginess, and that was probably true of his recordings from the RCA and especially the EMI years, but here he chooses tempi that are just right, probably a little fast, in fact, for Bydlo, the lumbering ox-cart. But with virtuoso playing from low strings and the tuba player, this is not merely a valid approach but an arresting one. The balances and the color Ormandy extracts from the orchestra are enhanced by a recording that I find frankly amazing. Many fine Philadelphia performances from the mid-sixties were done in by the Columbia engineers, who provided coarse, blowsy sound. This is true, for instance of Ormandy's otherwise successful Nielsen recordings. But here the sound, while bigger than life in typical Columbia fashion, is very real in timbre, and the ambience is entirely believable as well. Percussion is very much front and center but without any impression of spotlighting. In fact, detail is admirably clear from top to bottom; this is an excellent sound recording by any standards. Certainly, Ormandy's "Pictures" can be placed alongside other classic recordings such as Reiner's, if not at the top of any short list of such recordings.
The recording of excerpts from Boris Godunov is fine as well, though not indispensable. This is really a showcase for George London's talents, and as such it is remarkable. The other soloists are fine, but this is really London's show. The well-regarded Thomas Schippers shows that he was a fine opera conductor, securing first-rate playing from the Columbia Symphony and alert and enthusiastic if not especially idiomatically Russian singing from the chorus. The sound is pretty remarkable for 1961 as well, and Sony's transfer is beyond cavil, even if they couldn't do anything to reduce the bit of tape hiss that is part and parcel of many 60s recordings.
So at Sony's mid-price, you get one of the best "Pictures" ever recorded, in sound that is unexpectedly brilliant. Add to that a very attractive selection of music from Mussorgsky's greatest opera, and you have a real deal, in my estimation.