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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Art as Music: Five Recordings of Pictures at an Exhibition

Mussorgsky wrote the ten works that make up Pictures at an Exhibition as a tribute to his late friend, the artist Viktor Hartmann. Hartmann's works were immortalized in a series of pieces (originally written for piano) that depict his art-work: paintings, drawings, and even architectural sketches on display. The work, published after Mussorgsky's death, became a concert favorite when it was orchestrated by Maurice Ravel. Here's a look at five very different recordings of Pictures at an Exhibition.

Philadelphia Orchestra cond. Eugene Ormandy
A classic recording displaying the warm Philadelphia sound under Ormandy. The reissue bundles an excellent set excerpts from the opera Boris Godunov, featuring George London in the title role. Thomas Schippers conducts the Columbia Symphony Orchestra.

Ivo Pogorelich, Piano
Pictures was originally written as a piano suite. It was published after Mussorgsky's death in a version edited by his friend Rimsky-Korsakov. The unedited version of the score (played here) gives a better sense of the composer's original intentions. Ivo Pogolerich gives a slow, thoughtful performance, stretching the work by about ten minutes. If you want to hear how Mussorgsky originally concieved the piece, this is a good place to start.

Philharmonia Orchestra, cond. Vladimir Ashkenazy; Vladimir Ashkenazy, Piano
This Decca reissue combines Ashkenazy's piano recording of the original version with his own orchestration of Mussorgsky's score. Ashkenazy is a fine pianist, although he makes some odd decisions: his "Old Castle" is much faster than Pogolerich and he plays the opening of "Bydlo" at full volume. The orchestral transcription gives the listener a slightly different take on the score than the "standard" Ravel version that might be closer to what Mussorgsky intended.

Berlin Philharmonic cond. Claudio Abbado
Well-played, thunderous version from Abbado's tenure with the Berliners. This was Abbado's second recording of the cycle. If you want the Ravel orchestration, this is a well-played recording, with the crack Berlin brass at their very best. You also get a harrowing Night on Bald Mountain and some rare Mussorgsky choral works. The original CD is currently out of the catalogue, but it shows up in used shops from time to time.

Emerson Lake and Palmer
The progressive rock trio (keyboards, bass, drums) started playing a shortened version of the suite at their early concerts. Designed to showcase the virtuosity of ELP, this is even more bombastic than the Ravel version, with liberal use of Hammond organ and Moog synthesizer. Also, in this version. "The Great Gate of Kiev" has lyrics! The original live version was recorded in Newcastle in 1971. In 2003, a reunited ELP recorded a studio rendition for their box set, The Return of the Manticore.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats