Musorgsky: Pictures from an Exhibition; Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet
CDH55306 Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Musorgsky: Pictures from an Exhibition; Prokofiev: Visions fugitives & Sarcasms
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Part 01: Promenade 1
Part 02: No 1: Gnomus
Part 03: Promenade 2
Part 04: No 2: The Old Castle (Il vecchio castello)
Part 05: Promenade 3
Part 06: No 3: Tuileries. Children quarrelling after play
Part 07: No 4: Bydlo (A Polish Ox-cart)
Part 08: Promenade 4
Part 09: No 5: Ballet of the unhatched chicks
Part 10: No 6: Two Polish Jews, one rich, the other poor (Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle)
Part 11: Promenade 5
Part 12: No 7: Limoges, the market place
Part 13: No 8a: Catacombae. Sepulchrum Romanum
Part 14: No 8b: Con mortuis in lingua mortua
Part 15: No 9: Baba Yaga (The hut on fowl's legs)
Part 16: No 10: The Great Gate of Kiev
Pictures from an Exhibition (for some reason the common mistranslation of Musorgsky’s ‘from’ as ‘at’ has proved hard to dislodge) was composed rapidly in the first three weeks of June 1874. It consists of musical representations of eleven of Hartmann’s works, six of which have been preserved in various archives and can be seen in a number of modern re-publications of the work (the ‘Two Jews’ were originally two separate paintings). In a Preface to the first publication of Pictures, Stasov left helpful descriptions of each object, which are all we have to go on for those since lost. That edition, which appeared in 1886, five years after the composer’s death, came with emendations by Rimsky-Korsakov; and it was from this well-meaning but somewhat bowdlerised version that Ravel made his famous orchestration in 1922. Publication in Musorgsky’s original form had to wait until 1931.
To help assemble his ten ‘pictures’ into a coherent musical ‘exhibition’, Musorgsky decided to depict himself, too, as if walking from one display to another in various moods, in a series of what he called Promenades. The first of these is styled additionally ‘in modo russico’, presumably because of its changing time signatures and folksong motifs. After this sturdy introduction the composer as it were rounds a corner and finds himself confronted by the first object on display, ‘Gnomus’. According to Stasov, this was a design for a grotesque nutcracker, in the form of a dwarf on deformed legs and with huge jaws. A chastened form of the Promenade then ushers in ‘Il vecchio castello’, depicting a troubadour singing over a drone bass in front of a medieval castle.
A renewed confident stride brings us quickly to ‘Tuileries’, which represents children squabbling and playing in the avenues of the famous Parisian gardens. With no intervening Promenade, ‘Bydlo’ depicts a Polish ox-cart on huge wheels, to which Rimsky-Korsakov made one of his most cavalier amendments, changing Musorgsky’s initial fortissimo to pianissimo, perhaps with the idea of the cart slowly approaching and receding, rather as in the Funeral March of Chopin’s B flat minor Sonata with its similar implacable harmonic foundation. Then a Promenade in the piano’s higher register anticipates the quicksilver humour of the ‘Ballet of the unhatched chicks’, a response to one of seventeen Hartmann illustrations for the ballet Trilby, with choreography by Petipa and music by Julius Gerber (the scene was apparently danced by children of the Imperial Ballet School, their arms and legs protruding from egg-shell costumes). Again without a break we move into ‘Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle’, a conflation of two portraits made during Hartmann’s visits to Sandomir, Poland, depicting a rich and a poor Jew. Musorgksy’s original title was for long suppressed, presumably because it provided an uncomfortable reminder of the casual anti-semitic attitudes he shared with large numbers of the Russian aristocratic intelligentsia of the time.
At this point the pianist has to take a deep breath, because the rest of the work plays without a break, and its technical demands steadily increase. A texturally enriched version of the opening Promenade introduces ‘Limoges, the market place’, subtitled ironically ‘The Big News’ (Musorgsky’s crossed-out annotations concern chit-chat over a runaway cow). After this fuss and bother, we are plummeted into the ‘Catacombae’ beneath Paris, coming face to face with an ancient Roman burial-ground (the second part of this memento mori, in which the Promenade theme appears beneath chilling tremolandos, had no title in the original). The ghoulish vein is developed with a musical depiction of Hartmann’s design for a clock in the form of a ‘hut on fowl’s legs’, titled ‘Baba Yaga’ after the evil witch of Russian folklore. The cycle is crowned by a grandiose aural realization of Hartmann’s design for ‘The Bogatyr Gate in Kiev’ (better known as ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’). The Bogatyrs were medieval warrior-nobles, and Hartmann’s gate, which was never actually built, was to have featured a bell-tower in the shape of a gigantic helmet—clearly the inspiration for Musorgsky’s spectacular, tintinnabulating textures.
from notes by David Fanning © 2013