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Hyperion Records

CDA67018 - Musorgsky: Pictures from an Exhibition; Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet (1884) by Sir Frank Dicksee (1853-1928)
Southampton City Art Gallery / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: July 1997
Snape Maltings, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Produced by Erik Smith
Engineered by Ken Blair
Release date: February 1998
DISCID: 9311941B
Total duration: 74 minutes 49 seconds

'Demidenko's performance is a marvel' (American Record Guide)

'Big-hearted pianism, musically alert, technically formidable' (Classic CD)

Musorgsky: Pictures from an Exhibition; Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet
No 1: Gnomus  [2'47]
Promenade 2  [1'01]
Promenade 3  [0'26]
Promenade 4  [0'50]
Promenade 5  [1'19]
National dance  [4'19]
Masks  [2'37]
Friar Laurence  [3'06]
Mercutio  [2'15]

Musorgsky's musical tribute to the painter and architect Viktor Hartmann has become his most familiar work, and this recording presents the original piano version of Pictures at an Exhibition. It is an extraordinary work, combining intense demands for virtuoso technique with an inexorable momentum which keeps what is fundamentally an impressionistic work in many movements moving towards its grand climax with the 'Great Gate of Kiev' finale.

Prokofiev is one of those composers who would constantly reuse material from one work in another. However, although the Ten Pieces from Romeo and Juliet may seem at first glance to be merely a medley gleaned from the more famous ballet, it should not be forgotten that Prokofiev published the set independently and that it was first performed the year before the finished ballet, perhaps by way of an advertisement for the more challenging (financially, at least) work to follow.

Also included here is Prokofiev's Toccata, written in 1912 while he was at the St Petersburg Conservatoire. The work was possibly conceived as a movement of the Second Piano Sonata, but Prokofiev evidently decided the work was worthy of publication in its own right.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The Russian painter and architect Viktor Hartmann died suddenly in Moscow during the morning of Wednesday 23 July 1873. One of his close friends—not of long standing, for they had met but a few years before—was the composer Modest Musorgsky. In 1856, at the age of seventeen, Musorgsky, scion of a wealthy family, had joined the famous Imperial Preobrazhensky Guards as an officer cadet. Soon after joining the army, Musorgsky was to meet the twenty-three-year-old military doctor Alexander Borodin, who was attached to the same barracks, and their mutual interest in music developed into a close friendship.

Borodin later described his younger colleague as ‘a dapper, aristocratic little cadet officer, rather affected and foppish, who would sit at the piano and play excerpts from Verdi’s operas’. In those days, the life of a Guards officer in the Russian army was largely given over, socially at least, to drinking, gambling and almost all other forms of licentiousness. The seeds of the chronic alcoholism which claimed Musorgsky’s life at the age of forty-two in 1881 were sown at this time.

Borodin also described Musorgsky as a somewhat weak character, an impression certainly not imparted by Musorgsky’s music. The death of Viktor Hartmann affected Musorgsky deeply and, within two years of the loss of his friend, Musorgsky was to pay Hartmann two memorial tributes in music. The first was inspired by a large posthumous exhibition of the painter and architect’s work, comprising about four hundred watercolours, drawings, sketches (some of which belonged to Musorgsky himself), architectural drawings and impressions of projected buildings and monuments, together with theatrical and costume designs. This major exhibition was held in St Petersburg a year after the death of Hartmann. The initial musical tribute by Musorgsky took the form of a suite for solo piano, affectionately and appropriately titled Pictures at an Exhibition. Each movement takes its inspiration, and title, from one of the exhibits, and occasionally the movements are linked by what Musorgsky termed a Promenade, which may possibly be a self-portrait (albeit not an extensive one) of the composer, strolling through the gallery and looking at each picture in turn. If this is indeed a self-portrait, the composer honestly portrayed himself as being hardly sylph-like, thoughtfully wandering around the exhibition in measured pace.

The Promenade theme itself, marked ‘nel modo russico, senza allegrezza, ma poco sostenuto’ has the aspect of Russian liturgical chant and is in irregular metre.

Hartmann’s death was to inspire, indirectly, another work from Musorgsky, begun at about the same time as Pictures at an Exhibition, but completed in 1877. This is the song-cycle Songs and Dances of Death—interestingly, the song-cycle quotes directly from Pictures.

It is sometimes claimed that, although great pianists are often successful in projecting Pictures at an Exhibition, the work in its original version is not too well conceived for the piano. If this is so, and such a view is often put forward as a justification for the many orchestral (and other) versions which have been made by later composers, the fact that the work demands both a virtuoso technique and deep musical intelligence for its fullest realization is an indication of the quality of the music itself. Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is, on this basis alone, clearly a work of significant importance, stature and originality—the last both in its structure and in its handling of the instrument. It remains the case that many of the effects deployed by Musorgsky that may appear to be what is termed ‘unpianistic’ on paper turn out to be tremendously effective in performance. Pianists who possess a transcendental technique will have but little difficulty in negotiating those passages which do not lie comfortably under the fingers. If Musorgsky’s piano writing does not attempt the conventional Romantic techniques of, say, Liszt or Chopin, it is surely the case that the effects are all well imagined and heard by the composer. They are nowhere inappropriate to the piano and will be fully vindicated if the pianist knows precisely what Musorgsky intended.

One of the more obvious (but little appreciated) aspects of the underlying unity of this essentially impressionistic work is that, despite being in many movements, Pictures at an Exhibition has a strong sense of momentum that imparts a compelling additional continuity to the composition. This reaches its natural (and musical) climax as the music inexorably moves towards the magnificence of the final Great Gate of Kiev—which seems fit to burst the confines of the keyboard. A further little-appreciated feature of the score is that almost all of the material of Pictures at an Exhibition derives from the opening Promenade.

In addition, the ten ‘pictures’ in the work are taken from several ‘types’—namely, the fantastic, the romantic, the humorous, genre pieces and the epic. These are not only contrasted within the overall grouping, but also linked by the five appearances of the Promenade and the thematic unity deriving therefrom. In the romantic Catacombae, and the concluding epic Great Gate of Kiev (a monument planned by Hartmann which was never erected), Musorgsky further unified the composition by incorporating the Promenade within the textures of those movements.

Like all great Russian composers, including Musorgsky of course, Serge Prokofiev was attracted to, and wrote for, the stage; yet—equally like all great Russian composers—we hear rather less of Prokofiev’s operas and ballets in the theatre today than in the concert hall or elsewhere. In Prokofiev’s case we have the composer himself to thank for making his theatre music more accessible, for he was—of all great twentieth-century composers—perhaps the most thrifty in terms of refashioning his material to various ends. In this regard, of course, he was merely following long-established custom, but Prokofiev continued this practice to a greater degree than almost any other composer.

Such a recreative approach to composition does not apply to all composers, nor to all theatre music. Prokofiev’s success in this field stems, at heart, from his own creative methods. His manner of working, established early in his career, hardly varied. He would carry with him a large notebook into which he would jot all his ideas, and when he had accumulated enough material he would begin the score. Before arriving at that stage, however, the material had already gone through several refining processes. The first was that of his creative imagination—for hardly a moment elapsed when Prokofiev was not thinking about the music in question. Secondly, Prokofiev was an exceptionally gifted pianist who, even after he gave up public appearances, played the instrument daily, when he would refashion or try at the keyboard ideas about which he had been thinking, extemporizing at will. The keyboard, therefore, became a powerful tool in Prokofiev’s creative process. And when it came to the scores themselves, his orchestral ones in particular, they had much of the appearance of piano reductions—often extended by the addition of extra staves when necessary. More often than not, Prokofiev’s music would be first committed to paper in a way which would enable a piano reduction to be made virtually at sight, with very little ‘arranging’ having to be done. In addition, Prokofiev’s music was essentially additive—first one idea, then another, his skill best shown in his ability in joining these elements, in fusing them coherently. In this regard, Prokofiev was a great master. Such an approach is perfect for theatre music, especially the ‘classical’ ballet.

Around the early part of 1934, Prokofiev was edging towards making the decision which became irrevocable for him—a permanent return to Russia after his post-Revolutionary years in the West. His previous ballets—four in total—had each received their premieres in Paris, but the Kirov Theatre in Leningrad was anxious to tempt Prokofiev with the offer of a new, large-scale work. However, the negotiations were inconclusive, and the contract for Prokofiev’s fifth ballet, Romeo and Juliet, was signed with the rival Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. The music was written, at Prokofiev’s usual speed, in the summer of 1935, and the ballet was ready to go into rehearsal at the turn of the year. But an artistic bombshell was about to explode. In January 1936, Dmitri Shostakovich’s successful opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and his new ballet The Limpid Stream were fiercely denounced in two Pravda editorials, throwing the musical world into turmoil. All new productions were put in jeopardy; the Bolshoi then declared that Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet could not be danced to, and the proposed production was cancelled.

Prokofiev was disheartened, but not devastated; if he did not realize the seriousness of the official threat to art, in any event he had, quite by chance, luckily ensured his acceptance as a genuine Soviet artist by the phenomenal success of Peter and the Wolf and the suite from the film of Lieutenant Kijé. In spite of the failure to get an early production of Romeo and Juliet in Russia, Prokofiev did all he could to rescue his score—which he must have known was excellent—from oblivion. He made two orchestral suites for concert use, and a set of ten pieces for solo piano, which he published as his Opus 75. Prokofiev himself first performed the Ten Pieces from Romeo and Juliet publicly in Moscow in 1937, and this suite marked the first appearance of the Romeo and Juliet music in any form in print.

The items of the piano suite were, as we noted earlier, close to the ‘original’ version of the ballet music; the publication of Prokofiev’s Opus 75 proved useful as a means of promoting the ballet itself, and it was in December 1938 that Romeo and Juliet was first staged, not in the USSR but in Brno, Czechoslovakia. The Russian premiere was given, curiously, not by the Bolshoi Company that had commissioned it, but by the Kirov Company, in Leningrad, in January 1940.

However, it cannot be emphasized too strongly that Prokofiev’s Opus 75 has to be considered as a separate independent piano work, not as a ‘second hand’ score. In the piano suite, the ballet order is changed considerably, for musical reasons—we should not expect a depiction of the stage events in sequence—and the piano version differs in some material respects from the orchestral scores (the ballet score and the concert suites). Prokofiev’s use of a separate opus number and his own public performance of the work in recital clearly show the importance he himself placed upon the keyboard version. But no matter in what form we hear this music, it could be by no other composer.

Prokofiev’s distinctive, admirable and unforgettable genius is apparent in almost all of his first seventeen published compositions, that is to say those written during the latter half of his time as a student at the St Petersburg Conservatoire—which he attended for ten years from 1904. These include his brilliant Toccata in D minor, written in 1912 and published the following year. There is some internal evidence to suggest that the composer originally intended the Toccata to form part of his Second Piano Sonata, Op 14, composed at the same time and sharing the same tonality, but withdrew it and issued it as a separate concert piece. It appears that the first public performance of this work did not take place until 10 December 1916, given by the composer himself, in a recital that included the first performance also of his Sarcasms, five piano pieces, Op 17.

Robert Matthew-Walker © 1998

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