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The inspiration for this music was an exhibition in St Petersburg of works by Mussorgsky’s artist friend Viktor Hartmann, who had died suddenly at the age of 39 on 23 July 1873. Both men had been absorbed in the task of finding a new means of expression for Russian art—one which would give full scope to the history, folklore and daily life of the people. Mussorgsky was an incomparably greater artist than his friend, but he undoubtedly admired Hartmann’s work, and this suite conveys not only the composer’s lively response to the drawings and paintings but also the depth of feeling aroused by his friend’s death. Mussorgsky was obsessed by death throughout his career and in the eighth movement, Catacombae, and especially in its second part, Con mortuis in lingua mortua, he expresses this sense of loss without a trace of sentimentality. In a footnote added to this movement he says: ‘The creative spirit of the departed Hartmann leads me to the skulls, calls me close to them, and the skulls glow softly from within.’ This objective approach to his art makes Mussorgsky an unrivalled observer of the world and its inhabitants, their physical movements and their psychology in equal measure. The whole suite is a strikingly forward-looking conception which takes us well into the world of the early twentieth century. Anticipations of the styles of Debussy, Ravel, Bartók and Stravinsky are not hard to find, and this is more remarkable when we remember that the only models Mussorgsky could have known were the early piano suites of Schumann.
The work begins with, and several ‘pictures’ are linked by, the Promenade, representing an observer approaching the pictures and moving from one to another. After its initial appearance we hear the first ‘picture’, Gnomus (‘The Gnome’), which has been described as a drawing representing ‘a little gnome walking awkwardly on deformed legs’. According to Alfred Frankenstein, who undertook much research into Hartmann’s work, it was really a design for a toy nutcracker and an example of Hartmann’s ‘fantastic craft work’. Mussorgsky’s music is grotesque and threatening. After another Promenade the next piece, Il vecchio castello (‘The Old Castle’), depicts ‘a medieval castle before which stands a singing troubadour’. Hartmann visited Italy, France, Germany and Poland between 1864 and 1867 and Frankenstein is of the opinion that the picture is question was ‘obviously one of Hartmann’s architectural water-colours done in Italy’. This is linked by another appearance of the Promenade theme to the next ‘picture’, Tuileries: Children quarrelling after play, no doubt inspired by Hartmann’s visit to Paris. It is a scherzo-like movement depicting the noisy children at their games. Bydlo is a representation of a Polish ox-cart lumbering along on enormous wooden wheels, most graphically depicted by Mussorgsky.
The Promenade again leads us to the Ballet of the unhatched chicks, an example of Hartmann’s work as a stage designer. In 1871 he made some sketches for a production of Nodier’s Trilby as a ballet, choreographed by Petipa with music by Julius Gerber and presented at the Bolshoi Theatre in St Petersburg. The dancers are shown dressed in costumes resembling large eggshells. The fledglings were canary chicks. Another vivid musical picture is Two Polish Jews, one rich, the other poor. There are some doubts concerning the nature of the Hartmann original. It may have been a drawing showing two Polish Jews in the Sandomir ghetto, or two separate drawings exhibited as belonging to Mussorgsky, one entitled ‘A rich Jew wearing a fur hat: Sandomir’, the other ‘A poor Sandomir Jew’. The two Jews were unnamed by Mussorgsky, though the ‘picture’ is well known as ‘Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle’. The person responsible for renaming them remains unknown.
Next we hear the Promenade again (omitted by Ravel in his famous orchestration) which takes us to Limoges, the Market Place, a bustling piece representing French women chattering and haggling in the market, dramatically giving way to Catacombae: Sepulchrum Romanum, a powerful evocation of the interior of the Paris catacombs. The second section, Con mortuis in lingua mortua (‘With the dead, in a dead language’) gives away Mussorgsky’s (or was it Hartmann’s?) faulty Latin: it should, of course, be ‘Cum mortuis’. This is a highly metamorphosed version of the Promenade theme.
The penultimate movement, The Hut on Fowl’s Legs subtitled ‘Baba Yaga’, is a representation of the Russian witch who dwelt in such an abode. Hartmann’s picture was actually a design for a clock. Mussorgsky’s music suggests the crone flying through the air.
Op 4 April 1866 an attempt was made on the life of Tsar Alexander II at Kiev. Three years later Hartmann entered a competition for designs for a gateway to commemorate the event. The drawing still exists and shows the front view of a stone gate in the old Russian style with adjoining belfry. This ‘Great Gate of Kiev’, though, was never built, but Mussorgsky brings his collection to an end with a splendid and grandiose depiction of it with massive chords and clamorous bells, wonderfully effective in this imaginative transcription of the ‘Pictures’ made by Arthur Wills especially for the organ of Ely Cathedral.
from notes by Hyperion Records Ltd © 1983