Mussorsky - Pictures at an Exhibition

Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky

Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky

I have just read the most amazing book - I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes.  It is a page turner from the first paragraph if a tad gruesome in places.  Without giving it away it tracks two men who eventually come together, one in the US intelligence and the other born in Saudia Arabia.  I will say no more but an excellent holiday read and well written. (Amazon)   

The Russian composer Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky 1839-1881 composed Pictures at an Exhibition as a tribute to an artist and architect friend called Vladimir Hartmann.  It was written during a dark period in the composers life when he had financial problems and had become an alcoholic.  Hartmann died tragically at the age of 39 from a heart attack at the peak of his career, Mussorgsky lost not only a great friend but also an artistic inspiration.  

As a tribute to his friend he composed a set of piano pieces called Pictures at an Exhibition which was inspired by an exhibition of the artists's work.  Although composed for the piano, nowadays, this piece is more usually heard in it's orchestrated form.  Many musicians have orchestrated the piece but by far the most popular version is that written by the French composer Maurice Ravel in 1922.

The Great Gate of Kiev by Hartmann

The Great Gate of Kiev by Hartmann

The year after Hartmann died there was an exhibition of over 400 of his paintings, costumes and architectural designs.  The story of the work opens with the "Promenade Theme" which is a majestic theme depicting visitors strolling between displays (YouTube) .  As they stroll around the gallery they stop at each picture or design.  The promenade transforms sometimes setting us down for the next picture but occasionally there is a startling change.  The first picture is "The Gnome" which describes in vivid fashion a nutcracker which Hartmann designed as a children's Christmas present (YouTube) .  Following on is "Tuilleries", a miniature scherzo, depicting children and their nurses strolling through a Parisian garden (YouTube).  The most famous movement of all is "The Great Gate of Kiev" which as sheer orchestral spectacles go, it has few rivals.  Hartmann had a plan for a great stone gate, in a massive old Russian style which was intended for the Ukranian city of Kiev but was never built.  Mussorgsky created a grander work than any tradesman could hope to build (YouTube). 

The recording I recommend is new and is performed by the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev and his orchestra The Mariinsky Orchestra.  It has had some excellent reviews and also also contains A Night on Bare Mountain also by Mussorgsky which is described in Gramophone Magazine as "one of the best performances" of this work.

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Posted on May 5, 2015 .