The drunken sot who glares out at us from Ilya Repin’s celebrated portrait looks more like a tramp than a composer, and Mussorgsky’s music has a similarly uncompromising expressive power, music that seems to work despite rather than
because of itself. Pianists have wrestled with the unpianistic corners of his most famous work since he composed it in 1874 in memory of his friend, the painter Viktor Hartmann, who had died the previous year.
Mussorgsky portrayed some of Hartmann's pictures in music when they were displayed at an exhibition in Saint Petersburg. The cycle of ten individual paintings is linked by the famous ‘promenade’, symbolizing the viewer of the pictures wandering through the exhibition. Hartmann’s bold and puzzling vignettes find their perfect analogue in Mussorgsky’s pianistic reimagining, but fellow composers could hardly leave the orchestral potential of this
often‐awkward music alone. Ravel wasn’t the first to mix his orchestral palette with Mussorgsky’s colours, but his version has justly stood the test of time, and stands alone for its sensitivity to the pungent, folkloristic flavour of the original.
Here is a rare and useful opportunity to compare the two versions side by side, completed by more music by Mussorgsky both wellknown (Night on Bare Mountain) and perhaps less familiar (assorted miniatures that make up the rest of the composer’s slender output for piano). The composer and conductor Igor Markevitch was a celebrated interpreter of Pictures, and this is his third recording.
Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” is one of the most famous and most frequently performed romantic piano cycles of the entire repertoire. It contains colourful, highly original and gripping musical depictions of a series of painting by Mussorgsky’s friend Hartmann: the menacing and evil Gnomus, the mysterious Old Castle, the frolicsome chicks just out of the egg, quarrelling children, the busy marketplace full of chattering women, and then moving into more sinister regions of the Catacomb (“with the Dead in the language of the Dead”), the brutal force and terror
of the witch Baba Yaga, culminating in the glorious Great Gate of Kiev. This work is so rich and “picturesque” , that it is hard to resist to make an orchestral arrangement of it, and several composers wrote their own orchestration, the most famous that by Maurice Ravel (a master orchestrator). Nevertheless the piano score leaves ample opportunity to
trigger the creativity of the pianist, and the interpretation by Russian pianist Alexander Warenberg is one of great imagination and authority. • This release offers both the original piano version and the Ravel orchestration, filled up with the orchestral “A Night on Bare Mountain” and the more modest, but no less impressive piano cycle by Tchaikovsky: The Seasons.
“Markevitch has succeeded in bringing out the purely Russian nature of the score while most of the other
conductors seem to be unduly influenced by Ravel’s orchestration” (Gramophone).