Modest P. Musorgsky (1839–1881) wrote Pictures at an Exhibition for piano in 1874, inspired by an exhibition that was arranged to commemorate the painter and architect Viktor Hartmann, who had been a close friend of Musorgsky for several years. Musorgsky was devastated when the painter suddenly died of a heart condition in the summer of 1873. “Such grief!” he wrote in a letter. “Oh unfortunate Russian art! This silly fool, death, mows everything down without even asking whether or not his wretched visit is desired. If only talents could at least grow like mushrooms!” The critic Vladimir Stasov organised an exhibition of Hartmann’s watercolours and drawings, which Musorgsky attended with a heavy heart. The pictures made a profound impression on him and inspired him to write a series of ten pieces, introduced and linked together by the recurring interlude of the Promenade.
In mid-1874 Musorgsky wrote in a letter to Stasov: "Wednesday, some date in June 1874... I am working at full steam on the ‘Pictures’, just as I once did on ‘Boris’; sounds and ideas hang in the air; I am devouring them with a ravenous appetite and barely have time to scribble them on paper. I am writing the fourth number – the transitions are good (thanks to the ‘promenades’). I want to bring the whole work to completion as soon and as aptly as possible. My physiognomy can be seen in the interludes...” The suite brilliantly captures the musician walking between the pictures, observing them and transmuting them into sound, melody, harmony and rhythm. The Promenade, with its irregular metre (changing between 5/4 and 6/4 time) and decidedly Russian intonation, undergoes surprising modification and colouration so as to suit each of the images it connects. The result is ten different character pieces, or “pictures in sound”, that pass by in succession:
1. Gnomus: this picture shows a gnome who clumsily scampers about on deformed legs.
2. Il vecchio castello: a troubadour sings his song in front of a mediaeval Italian castle.
3. Tuileries: children at play squabble on one of the avenues of the Tuileries Garden in Paris.
4. Bydlo: a ponderous Polish ox cart gradually rattles along on its monotonously rolling wheels.
5. Ballet of the unhatched chicks: this piece is based on a drawing by Hartmann portraying the hatching of chicks.
6. Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle: this scene depicts a discussion between a poor and a rich Jew.
7. Market place at Limoges: amidst the whirring activity at the market in Limoges, this piece brings out the chatter and quarrelling of market women.
8. Catacombae: in this picture Hartmann had portrayed himself exploring the Paris catacombs by lantern light. Musorgsky noted the following in the manuscript: “The creative spirit of the departed Hartmann leads me to the skulls and calls to them, and the skulls start to glow softly from within.”
9. The Hut of Baba Yaga: a clock designed in the form of a hut on chicken legs, representing the izbushka belonging to the dreaded witch of Russian folklore. Musorgsky incorporates the witch’s frenzied flight in a mortar into his music.
10. The Great Gate of Kiev: this drawing by Hartmann shows his design for a gateway leading into the city of Kiev. The gateway appears in the grand, ancient Russian style, with a cupola shaped like a Slavonic helmet.
The unique character of Pictures at an Exhibition is predominantly defined by the sharpness of Musorgsky’s piano-writing. That said, its vividness has frequently prompted reputable musicians to rearrange the pieces for other instruments. The orchestral version written by the French composer Maurice Ravel in 1922 on a commission from the conductor Sergei Alexandrovich Koussevitzky has attained international renown. Ravel carried out his task with ingenious intuition: the arrangement bears spectacularly colourful testimony to his highly acclaimed part-writing skills.
Night on Bald Mountain is a “fantasy for orchestra” written by Musorgsky between 1860 and 1867. He called it “a genuinely Russian work that burst forth from our native fields and was nurtured on Russian bread.” After revising the score several times, he initially planned to incorporate it into a scene of the (eventually aborted) opera-ballet Mlada in 1872, but ultimately used it as a stage interlude for his comic opera Sorochinskaya yarmarka (Sorochintsy fair). The final arrangement of Night on Bald Mountain was done by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in 1886, after Musorgsky’s death.
The programme notes pertaining to the work run as follows: “Subterranean sounds of unearthly voices. – Appearance of the spirits of darkness, followed by Chernobog (the “black god”). – Glorification of Chernobog and celebration of the black mass. – Witches’ sabbath. – At the height of the orgy, the bell of the little village church is heard from afar. The spirits of darkness are dispersed. – Daybreak.” The Lysa Hora (barren mount) is a large wooded hill on the outskirts of Kiev and is said to be the site of “bald mountain”, the place where, according to legend, witches and evil spirits gather at night.
Wolfgang Börner (original LP sleeve notes, 1974)
Translation: J & M Berridge
Repertoire classic stripped of its patina
Igor Markevitch enjoys a legendary reputation. He was successful both as a conductor of leading orchestras and as a composer and (university) lecturer. His pupils include Daniel Barenboim, Herbert Blomstedt and Wolfgang Sawallisch. In his autobiography Die Musik – mein Leben (music, my life) Barenboim recalls that Igor Markevitch had taught him “a personal, highly individual style of conducting”. In his Salzburg course he was “completely preoccupied with the clarity of the sound, the clarity of the rhythm and the clarity of the gesture”.
In many ways it was these characteristics that Markevitch introduced to the collective consciousness of the orphaned late-60s Gewandhaus orchestra. 1968 had seen Václav Neumann resign his position as conductor in protest at the suppression of the “Prague Spring” and its echo in the publications of East Germany’s ruling Socialist Unity Party. Despite his short term of office, Neumann was able to advance from the Konwitschny era with a new approach to programming and a new style – by means of new or additional core repertoire and a leaner, more highly articulated sound. Markevitch was the ideal person to continue this task. The extent to which the Gewandhaus orchestra valued his qualities is evident from the monograph by former principal dramaturg Fritz Hennenberg. Apart from the honour of a half-page photo, granted in this little book of 1984 to very few conductors, Hennenberg draws the following conclusion: “The concerts of the 1968/69 and 1969/70 seasons were assigned to guest conductors. Deep artistic insights were gained from the encounters with Igor Markevitch and the soloist and conductor David Oistrakh.”
Markevitch laid down his understanding of maintaining tradition through renewal with his 1973 ETERNA recording of a work that is one of the world’s best known: Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in Maurice Ravel’s orchestration. Ravel’s version has clearly acquired more of a patina than the original piano version written half a century earlier, as even a first hearing of Markevitch’s recording proves. His interpretation suggest an imagined reorchestration of Mussorgsky’s work – rough and angular rather than polished and elegant. The recording venue favoured his aesthetic preferences. The acoustics of the Versöhnungskirche in the Leipzig suburb of Gohlis permit a striking clarity and directness of sound, whereas the conditions in other, mostly older churches often lead to a blurring and darkening of the orchestral timbres. Built in the style of the New Objectivity in 1932, the church at the edge of the inter-war housing development in north Gohlis offered the ideal recording venue for the (first) Mendelssohn and Schumann cycles by the new Gewandhaus conductor Kurt Masur. Ravel’s classical favourite after Mussorgsky’s original did not find favour with Masur, however. He preferred Sergey Gorchakov’s 1955 version for its closeness to Mussorgsky’s specific tonal language and recorded it with the Gewandhaus orchestra two decades after Markevitch. Masur’s choice of Gorchakov was entirely in character. The director of the Gewandhaus archive, Claudius Böhm, was able to report in 1998 in his foreword to the opening season by Masur’s successor Herbert Blomstedt that for the first time for 25 years – since Markevitch’s time – Ravel’s brilliant orchestration of the Pictures would be heard.
One witness to that period in the orchestra’s history is solo cellist Jürnjakob Timm, a full member of the Gewandhaus orchestra since 1973 and a stand-in even earlier. Looking back he spontaneously recalls Markevitch’s “very good conducting technique” as “an impressive experience”. It was “through sheer ability” (and not as a tyrant of the rostrum) that the conductor had communicated his concepts to the orchestra. His way of working had been a sound compromise between the extremes of rehearsal fetishist and Abenddirigent (a conductor who rises to the occasion in the actual performance). After a thorough rehearsal of the work to be played, “making music with him was highly intensive on the night”.
Translation: Janet and Michael Berridge
Title: Pictures at an Exhibition, Night on Bald Mountain
Composer: Modest Mussorgsky
Artist: Martin Vatter
Conductor: Igor Markevitch
Orchestra: Gewandhausorchester Leipzig
Media: 1x 1/4" Plastic Reel Tape Stereo 19cm/s (7.5ips), LPR90, . Start Master Copy, Plastic reel 180mm (7"), 1/4" RTM LPR90 tape, IEC eq., 250nWb/m
Label: Horch House
Released: 1.2.2024 in Germany
Original release: 1974 by Eterna 8 26 449