Although Giulini was noted as a conductor of both works here, he competes with his own studio recordings, and in the case of Pictures, he leads the same orchestra, the Philharmonia. Mussorgsky's popular masterpiece is so ubiquitous that it takes an exceptional reading, on the order of Reiner, Gergiev, or Karajan, to awaken my interest -- and this isn't one of those exceptions. The mono sound from 1961, at a Sept. concert in Edinbrugh, is a touch too bright on top and limited in impact. Giulini's approach is also rather sober instead of glittering, and Ravel's orchestration is surely about brilliance. The Gramophone reviewer fell over himself raving about a reading that struck me as fairly ordinary. If you want one of the most straight-faced readings in the catalog, here you go.
I was more attracted to the Tchaikovsky Pathetique, because Giulini's depth was always a good match for this work, not to mention his melancholy as an interpreter. His EMI studio effort dates from the same year, and although it's no sonic wonder, it is in stereo. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, we hear Tchaikovsky everywhere that Russian conductors have migrated, and besides their passionate authenticity, past greats from Furtwangler and Toscanini to Karajan and Bernstein have made a deep impression in this work. The Gramophone reviewer cites Giulini's tendency toward restraint, and it's true that he isn't emotionally cheap or lurid. But tempos are actually on the quick side, and the mood, surprisingly, isn't as dark or introverted as one might expect. Giulini's sincerity as an interpreter was always his greatest strength. This is a reading marked frequently by understatement, with many appealing touches of phrasing. The waltz movement feels alive; the march-tempo Scherzo is played for quickness and brilliance. Yet the limitations of distant mono sound are undeniable. Giulini doesn't reach for the deepest tragedy in the last movement, which is a valid choice; he is certainly fervent and emotional.
In all, this is a historical CD that adds to the legacy of a great conductor but has too many drawbacks for the everyday listener who expects modern sound.