Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" has whitened and faded in the course of incessant repetition. Some jaded concertgoers might reasonably claim that there is nothing new to say about the score, that its fierce, strange colors cannot be restored. Kurt Masur, in an outstanding interpretation with the New York Philharmonic on Friday night, showed otherwise. These "Pictures" glowed and glared; the orchestra played as if the ink were not yet dry on the page.
The first step was to set aside the most familiar of the orchestral versions. No competitor could hope to rival Ravel's diversity of detail, his lavishness of sound, but even the most sophisticated glitter obscures the revolutionary starkness of Mussorgsky's original piano score. As has become his habit, Mr. Masur substituted the orchestration by Sergei Gorchakov. The conductor introduced this version to the West in 1968 and recorded it a couple of years ago with the London Philharmonic.
Gorchakov rejects Ravel's conception of "Pictures" as a concerto for orchestra. Instead he relies heavily on the strings, particularly the cellos, with brass and woodwind choirs singing through the texture in traditional Russian fashion. The result is a darker and sleeker whole. But Gorchakov is by no means drab: "Catacombs" has a softly shifting surface, mirroring the composer's image of skulls that glow from within, and "The Old Castle" is a tone picture reminiscent of Sibelius.
Mr. Masur shaped the work masterfully, choosing tempos that propelled Mussorgsky's images without rushing them. "Bydlo" was not just a bucolic scene of an ox cart, but rather a nightmarish procession akin to the cattle in Strauss's "Elektra." "Catacombs," with its filigree of muted trumpets, was a thing of chilling beauty. The savagery of "The Hut on Fowls' Legs" had a swift, sharp edge.
But the triumph of the performance came in the final episode, the cumbersome "Great Gate of Kiev." Very seldom can a conductor avoid a hint of anticlimax in the last few pages of the score. Aided by Gorchakov's judiciously patient massing of forces, and wisely pressing the tempo forward, Mr. Masur brought this mass of neo-primitive excess under control. The performance soared highest in the final bars, and the audience responded aptly with a standing ovation.
The brilliance of this "Pictures at an Exhibition" made one almost forget a first half that was considerably less successful. The guiding theme for this program was the appropriation of popular or folk idioms, but Mr. Masur's interpretations of Kodaly's "Hary Janos" Suite and Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F did not have an idiomatic feel.
In the Kodaly, the orchestra was hesitant and imprecise at times and did not deliver the irresistible Hungarian melodies with appropriate panache. Mr. Masur, intent on highlighting each detail, seemed to lose the main thread of the argument. Several episodes were taken at too slow a tempo, and closing phrases often sounded like afterthoughts.Continue reading the main story
Pictures at an Exhibition, musical work in 10 movements by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky that was inspired by a visit to an art exhibition. Each of the movements represents one of the drawings or artworks on display. Although originally composed in 1874 for solo piano, Pictures became better known in orchestral form, particularly as arranged by French composer Maurice Ravel in 1922. The work was also orchestrated by other composers, such as Sir Henry J. Wood (1918), Leopold Stokowski (1939), and Vladimir Ashkenazy (1982). In 1971 the British popular music group Emerson, Lake and Palmer devoted an entire album to their own art-rock interpretation of the piece.
Mussorgsky composed Pictures as a memorial to his friend, the Russian artist Viktor Hartmann, who had died in 1873 at age 39. Shortly after the artist’s death, Mussorgsky visited a retrospective exhibit of Hartmann’s sketches, stage designs, and architectural studies and felt the need to capture the experience in music. By early summer 1874, he had completed the work, a lengthy and fiendishly difficult suite for solo piano. At the time of Mussorgsky’s death in 1881 from alcoholism, the piece had been neither performed nor published. It fell to his friend and colleague Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov to tidy up the manuscript and bring it to print in 1886.
The suite consists of musical depictions of 10 paintings by Hartmann, interspersed with a recurring “Promenade” theme, or intermezzo, that represents a visitor—in this case, the composer himself—strolling through the exhibition. The powerful nature of the intermezzi, Mussorgsky acknowledged in one of his letters, reflects his own large physique.
Following the opening “Promenade,” the first four movements, or “pictures,” in order of appearance, are: “The Gnome,” a depiction of an awkward dwarf conveyed through irregular rhythms and forceful outbursts; “The Old Castle,” a solemn and lyrical portrayal of a medieval troubadour singing on the grounds of a grand castle; “Tuileries,” a sprightly sketch of children at play in the well-known Tuileries Gardens in Paris; and “Cattle,” a ponderous characterization of the lumbering of a large Polish ox cart.
The scampering fifth movement, “The Ballet of Unhatched Chicks in Their Shells,” represents a costume design by Hartmann for a children’s ballet. The sixth scene evokes an image of “Two Jews: One Rich, One Poor” through the interplay of a strident melody in the lower register and a twittering chantlike theme in the upper. The folksy and cheerful quality of the seventh movement, “The Market at Limoges,” is neutralized by the eighth, “The Catacombs,” which casts an eerie shadow with ominous chords and variations on the recurring intermezzo.
The last two scenes of Pictures at an Exhibition are the most renowned. “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs” is a nightmarish portrayal of the cackling witch Baba-Yaga on the prowl for her prey. She charges—bounding in a virtuosic passage in octaves—right into the tenth and final picture, “The Great Gate of Kiev.” With a depiction of Hartmann’s sketch of a proposed city gate topped by cupolas in which carillons ring, Mussorgsky brings the piece to a majestic close.