Modest Mussorgsky reacts to a series of paintings by his friend Victor Hartmann.
Performed by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Giordano Bellincampi
In a letter two years before he wrote Pictures at an Exhibition, Mussorgsky wrote to the critic Vladimir Stassov:
"I am not against symphonies, just symphonists, incorrigible conservatives... Leave the boundaries of art aside – I believe in them only relatively because the boundaries of art in the religion of an artist mean stagnation.'
The structure of Pictures exhibits Mussorgsky's disregard for conventional forms, the work's layout serving the intent of the art: to give the experience of a trip through a gallery where the viewer, again in the composer's words, is "roving through the exhibition, now leisurely, now briskly, in order to come closer to a picture that had attracted his attention, and at times sadly, thinking of his departed friend."
The departed friend was Victor Hartmann, by all counts a fairly unremarkable artist, whose early demise at the age of 39 inspired Stassov to arrange a huge memorial exhibition. In turn this triggered Mussorgsky in his own tribute which he created for piano in a blaze of industry over a few weeks in June of 1874.
It seems Pictures may never have been performed in the remaining six alcohol-soaked years of Mussorgksy's life which also came to a premature end when he was only 42 and the work was unearthed by Rimsky-Korsakov, the executor of his estate.
From here, several orchestrations of varying success were made but this 1922 version by Maurice Ravel has gained the most currency.
Interestingly, it was based on a Rimsky-Korsakov edition as Mussorgsky's original was unattainable until its publication in 1930. But Ravel had an empathy for Mussorgsky's style, having reworked his opera Khovanshchina in collaboration with Stravinsky years before. And as many of the Frenchman's own symphonic works began in piano form, the process of orchestration was second nature to him.
Programme Note: Kevin Keys
Recorded by RNZ Concert, Auckland Town Hall, 13 February 2020
Producer: Tim Dodd; Engineer: Adrian Hollay