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ClassicsOnline Home » MUSSORGSKY, M.: Pictures at an Exhibition (orchestrations compiled by L. Slatkin) / LISZT, F.: Piano Concerto No. 1 (Peng Peng, L. Slatkin)
An increasing number of recordings (Stokowski’s characteristically daring transcription is available on Naxos 8.557645) now feature orchestrations of Mussorgsky’s Pictures other than Ravel’s popular warhorse (Naxos 8.555924). Leonard Slatkin’s eclectic selection, some more outlandish than others, invites us to bask in the high spirits and ingenuity of no fewer than fifteen different composers. The Chinese pianist PENG PENG, who was fourteen at the time of this recording, has won many competitions, including first prize in the 2002 China National Youth Piano Competition.
By Giv Cornfield
The New Recordings, Cliffs Classics
15-year-old keyboard phenomenon Peng Peng had just wowed audiences here , performing with the Honolulu Symphony. This is really exciting, for let's face it—it's show-biz! What is an old fuddy-duddy like me, who grew up on Horowitz and Rubinstein, supposed to make of it? Well, I'd venture to say that given some more time, he could match and perhaps even surpass such a standard... As for this version of "Pictures", I have some doubts. Ravel's masterful orchestration set the standard, yet along comes Slatkin, who by his own account seeks input from "no fewer than fifteen different composers", including (an insignificant) choral finale. How about leaving well enough alone, huh? (Great audio, though).
By David Denton
Orchestrating Mussorgsky’s piano score, Pictures at an Exhibition, has long fascinated composers, the conductor, Leonard Slatkin, here creating a hybrid using pictures taken from versions by little-known and famous names.
We have become so accustomed to Ravel’s colourful orchestration, it is difficult to think of it in any other guise, though at times you may find this an improvement. Certainly that could be the case in Vladimir Ashkenazy’s vivid portrait of the ox cart in Bydlo, andbe prepared for surprises in Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle seenthrough the eyes of the famous British conductor Henry Wood. Elsewhere composers show deference to Ravel by tinkering around the edges of his basic ideas. Even the Australian film composer Douglas Gamley, who added a choir and organ to the final Great Gate of Kiev, misses out on a deluge of cascading bells that could have closed the score in a plethora of colours. There are jarring moments when styles clash between pictures, the move from Carl Simpson’s Promenade to Lucien Cailliet’s Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks not one of Slatkin’s most inspired moments. The result will titillate and, hopefully, remind you there are many worthwhile alternatives to Ravel. The unusual choice of coupling comes from the fact that this is a concert given by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, the Liszt Piano Concerto forming part of the evening. The soloist is the gifted sixteen-year-old Chinese-born, Peng Peng, presently studying at New York’s Juilliard School of Music [he was fourteen at the time of the recording]. He brushes aside the work’s technical demands, his account strongly poetic and with touches of his own personality in the moulding of phrases. Tempos are at times lovingly spacious, and even in an overcrowded catalogue of performances, Peng Peng would feature highly. Good accompaniment, the orchestra adding Rob Mathes arrangement of The Star-Spangled Banner as a eulogy on the tragic events of the terrorist attack on New York’s twin towers.
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839–1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition (orchestrations compiled by Leonard Slatkin)
Mussorgsky once lamented to the greatest Russian painter of the nineteenth century, Ilya Repin, that composers had lost the artist’s ability to ‘mix his colours and work freely’. His own free compositional brush strokes invariably went hand in hand with a strong visual sense, starting with the image of ‘peasants crossing the fields and plunging heavily through the snow’ which inspired the Scherzo in modo classico of 1861. Over a decade later, at the height of his powers, Mussorgsky even stepped in to keep alive the memory of a picture consumed to ashes. Vasily Vereshchagin’s shocking canvas depicting a dead soldier of the 1871 Turkestan campaign, pecked at by crows and vultures as he lay on the deserted battlefield, was banned by the Tsarist censorship in 1874 and destroyed by the artist. Mussorgsky’s great friend Count Golenischev-Kutuzov recreated the scene in words, and the composer set it to music as a song with the same title as the painting: ‘The Forgotten One.’
An even more emotional commemoration took place earlier that same year, when a St Petersburg exhibition of sketches and paintings by the recently deceased artist and architect Viktor Hartmann gave Mussorgsky the prompt he needed for an apt monument to his dead friend. Hartmann had played a key rôle in advising the composer, not least in persuading him to add to his revised version of Boris Godunov a love-scene for the pretender Dmitry and the Polish Princess Marina Mniszek. The pictorial inspiration began when Hartmann presented Mussorgsky with sketches of a rich and poor Jew, which were eventually to find their musical equivalent along with several other designs not actually on display at the commemorative exhibition (because most of the items there were for sale, and disappeared into private collections, it is only the sketches and designs, five of them, which have surfaced for reproduction).
Now, in 1874, Mussorgsky selected ten of Hartmann’s most striking images, threaded his own physiognomy as promenader through his own musical exhibition – originally called simply Hartmann – and completed his work in less than three weeks that June. The form he chose was that of a piano suite, setting Pictures at an Exhibition apart from other Russian elegies, from Glinka through Tchaikovsky to Shostakovich, cast as piano trios; but the memorial thread remains strong, culminating in a haunting thematic transformation of the spectator’s mood as Mussorgsky imagines himself led by the soul of Hartmann through catacombs to a vision of glowing skulls.
Despite Mussorgsky’s conviction that Pictures at an Exhibition bore the mark of an inspiration as fierce as that which had possessed him in composing Boris Godunov, triumphantly given its première at the beginning of the same year, its spacious canvas and orchestral pianism would seem to have impaired its international status as a Russian classic. A few brave pianists did their best to popularise the original, among them Sergey Prokofiev, who presented selections in his American recitals of 1919 and even ‘recorded’ four pieces for the Duo-Art Piano System. Relative ignominy came to an end in 1922 when Maurice Ravel received a princely 10,000 francs to orchestrate Pictures at an Exhibition for the influential Russian émigré conductor Serge Koussevitzky. There has been a great deal of head-scratching about how Slavic Ravel’s attempt really is, but Mussorgsky himself proves truly international, following his late friend’s example with titles in French, Italian, Latin and Polish, and only three in Russian (Hartmann had carried out most of his painting in western Europe, during his travels abroad between 1864 and 1868; before and after that, he worked in Russia primarily as an architect). In any case Ravel was an ardent Russophile, having played countless arrangements for four-hand piano in his youth. His orchestration is appropriately stark and monumental when the context demands, but also embraces his own unsurpassable refinement, and inevitably takes into account how much had happened to the orchestra in the half-century since Mussorgsky composed his piano masterpiece.
Not that Ravel was by any means the first in being tempted, as that pioneering if purist advocate of Russian music Gerald Abraham put it, ‘to deface Mussorgsky’s bold black-and-white crayons with orchestral colour’. Mussorgsky’s illustrious colleague Rimsky-Korsakov had earlier proved true to his credo of improvement by making a start before passing the palm to his pupil Mikhail Tushmalov, whose far from complete orchestration, omitting all promenades but the first and three pictures, the master first conducted in 1891. Another musical friend, Lyadov, thought about making his own version in 1903 but, famously indolent by nature, proceeded no farther with that than with Dyagilev’s attempt to get him to write The Firebird in 1910. The Proms’ founding father Henry Wood tried out the Tushmalov selection before making his own arrangement of all ten pictures (but again only the first Promenade), which he conducted in a Queen’s Hall concert on 17 April 1915; he later withdrew his arrangement in deference to Ravel’s. Last of the significant early champions Leo Funtek, found himself just pipped to the post by Ravel in 1922. Subsequent viewpoints, slow to appear until the Ravel orchestration’s exclusive rights came to an end, were all the more welcomed by orchestras since the copyright fees for the best-known orchestral Pictures remained prohibitively expensive. An increasing number of recordings now feature those alternatives, culminating most recently in Oliver Knussen’s surprising choice of his old family friend Leopold Stokowski’s characteristically wayward transcription. We have also had, of course, the electronic bizarreries of Isao Tomita, the popular touch of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and numerous instrumental transcriptions including one for accordion virtuosi and Christian Lindberg’s jeu d’esprit for trombone and piano. Back in the orchestral sphere, the misleading debate about French refinement versus Slavic earthiness continues, but rugged Russianness is certainly not the aim of Leonard Slatkin’s eclectic selection, very different from the equally diverse sequence he conducted at the Proms in 1991; instead, we are invited to bask in the high spirits and ingenuity of several more outlandish contenders.
Quotations in the description which follows come from the programme provided by the work’s dedicatee and yet another distinguished friend of the composer, the critic Vladimir Stasov. The first edition of the piano score which it accompanied was published by Vassily Bessel in 1886, five years after Mussorgsky’s death and with either improvements or errors supplied by Rimsky-Korsakov. A still not entirely reliable version, based on the original manuscript, was edited by Pavel Lamm for publication in 1931, too late for all the arrangers before then, who carried over some crucial mistakes from various post-Bessel editions in both notes and dynamics. More recent contributors have preferred to work from facsimiles of Mussorgsky’s original manuscript, in circulation since 1975.
 Promenade. Mussorgsky presents himself not as a melancholy alcoholic, but as a stout Russian, humming a native folk-tune that typically favors flexible meters. The orchestration for this opening Promenade was created, at the request of Leonard Slatkin, especially for the concert by Nashville Symphony Principal Music Librarian (and former horn player) D. Wilson Ochoa, who offers this note:
“I began by using Mussorgsky’s own orchestration of Night on Bald Mountain as an inspiration (which is quite more adventuresome and exciting than Rimsky-Korsakov’s reworking of that piece). My thought was not just to give a portrait of the person touring the exhibition, but to give the idea that this person is approaching the gallery; therefore, the anticipation and excitement build throughout. Woodwinds begin, to which are added pizzicato strings and a walking cello/bass line. Full orchestra with brass is saved until the final statements of the theme.”
 I. Gnomus. ‘A sketch showing a little gnome, clumsily running with crooked legs’ (Hartmann’s original no longer survives). Mussorgsky’s menacing interpretation of Hartmann’s nutcracker design is very much in the line of his earlier orchestral score first known as St John’s Night on the Bare Mountain, giving some cues for instrumentation. Sergey Gorchakov (1905–1976) keeps the colours dark but plays relatively sober, keeping for instance Mussorgsky’s straight repeat when Ravel goes for eerie embroidery. Perhaps because Gorchakov is the only Soviet representative – professor at the Moscow Conservatory, he made his orchestration thirteen years after Pavel Lamm’s ‘correct’ 1931 edition of the original – he has been held up as a model of Russianness, but this distinction, made by conductor Kurt Masur among others, is somewhat oversimplified, for reasons given above.
 Promenade. All energy spent in the cracked looking-glass of the first picture, the becalmed spectator now puts himself in the right frame of mind for a calmer scene. German-born conductor and composer Walter Goehr (1903–1976), father of an even finer composer, Alexander, made his arrangement in 1942 ‘to meet the requirements of orchestras of less than fully “symphonic” proportions’. He sensitively underlines Mussorgsky’s introspection here with solo strings, double woodwind and muted brass.
 II. Il vecchio castello. ‘A medieval castle, in front of which a troubadour is singing’. Novelty usually rests with which solo instrument takes the pensive minstrel’s song, a lilting Italian sicilienne: alto saxophone (Ravel), cor anglais (Stokowski) or muted trumpet (Gorchakov). Here the alto flute launches the melody; but the real fascination comes with the imitative, canonic lines added for solo piano, which later elaborates the theme and leads the central crescendo. The rôle is a plum one allocated to himself, among others, by Bulgarian Emile Naoumoff (b.1962), who studied composition under Nadia Boulanger and swept to fame in 1984 with a virtuoso performance of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. His arrangement of Pictures followed seven years later.
 Promenade. Rough double octaves suggest the composer’s more masculine Slavic soul, softened by:
 III. Tuileries. ‘Avenue in the Tuileries gardens, with a swarm of children and governesses’. Is this an entirely French canvas, or are these Russian children in the Parisian playground, crying ‘Nya-nya’ (‘nanny’), as one Russian musicologist has suggested? The wind-and-brass sounds of bass clarinettist and arranger Geert Van Keulen (b.1943) allow for stark masses in the promenade and Gallic pastel delicacy in the picture, where the winds are supported by selective muted trombones and trumpet (only coming to the fore with cup mute in the slyly charming middle section). Van Keulen’s many other selective arrangements, incidentally, range from Shostakovich to tango.
 IV. Bydlo. ‘A Polish cart on enormous wheels, drawn by oxen’ (‘bydlo’ is the Polish word for oxen). Note echoes of the Promenade in the developing melodic line: is this suffering mother Russia as much as a picture of Polish hardship? Rimsky-Korsakov’s piano score led all orchestrators before 1931 to believe that the cart hailed from a distance, pianissimo. Mussorgsky’s intention was fortissimo from the start. Proud to have put the earlier textual errors wrong, and guided as he put it by ‘the deeper undercurrents of this predominantly dark-coloured work’, Vladimir Ashkenazy (b. 1937) makes his impact with four horns in full throated unison (As pianist and conductor Ashkenazy needs no introduction; but it is worth noting that he has recorded his orchestration alongside his interpretation of the piano original.)
 Promenade. Oppressed perhaps by the image of eastern European labour, the minor-key mood of the spectator is abruptly banished by an unexpected cheep from the next canvas. Here we have a brief, straightforward, sample glimpse of the most recent arrangement (1995) by musicologist and composer Carl Simpson (b.1955).
 V. Ballet of the unhatched chicks. ‘An illustration by Hartmann of a picturesque scene in the ballet Trilby’, first produced at the Bolshoy in 1871, with choreography by Petipa including this sequence for children dressed in giant eggshells. Few orchestrators can match Ravel for sophistication in this piquant dance number, inspired by a fantasy-trio in Glinka’s fairy-tale opera Ruslan and Lyudmila; one who treats it even more exuberantly, with wood-black, rattle and a flutter-tonguing blast from the trumpet, is Lucien Cailliet (1891–1985), sole survivor of Leonard Slatkin’s 1991 sequence. Cailliet, who studied under D’Indy in his native France, came to the Philadelphia Orchestra as bass-clarinettist and court arranger to Leopold Stokowski, who often took the credit for his work. He went on to write orchestral works including a set of variations on ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’, composed many film scores of his own and orchestrated others (including the late Elmer Bernstein’s music for The Ten Commandments).
 VI. Two Polish Jews, one rich, one poor. (Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle in the original manuscript). Hartmann had painted two quite separate characters; Mussorgsky sets up a dramatic dialogue between them. The rich Jew is grand and well-upholstered in the piano version, as here with fortissimo double basses and lower woodwind; the poor Jew is surely trembling or stammering rather than whining as in Ravel’s unforgettable solo for muted trumpet. The 1915 arrangement of our very own Sir Henry Wood (1869–1944) enjoys a flutter-tonguing, harp-glissandoing transition before settling for oboes and cor anglais backed up by muted trombone. His coda, though as this is an early arrangement it follows Rimsky-Korsakov’s faulty text, offers marvellous contrasts between soft and loud.
 Promenade. The one Ravel left out allows Mussorgsky’s promenader – so much more amiably prosperous than Samuel Goldenberg – to take stock at the mid-way point. But this is no ordinary semi-reprise. In another version for piano and orchestra made in 1975, sixteen years before Naoumoff’s, the English-trained conductor and composer Lawrence Leonard (b.1926) preserves Mussorgsky’s solo line throughout and heightens his antiphony in the shifting orchestral colours.
 VII. Limoges: Le marché. ‘French women arguing furiously in the market square’. A shrill riot of colour. In 1922 the Czech-born conductor of Finland’s major orchestra and opera company Leo Funtek (1885–1965) would have probably, like Ravel, have had the example of Respighi’s Pines of Rome fresh in his ears, where the tumult also falls into the shadow of the catacombs. This ‘other’ Pictures from the key year in the work’s fortunes also enjoys the glitter of the percussion battery, though it poses challenges of articulation, somewhat inevitably given Mussorgsky’s pianistic and toccata-like original.
 VIII. Catacombae –
 Cum mortuis in lingua mortua. Stasov to Rimsky-Korsakov, 1 July 1874: ‘You don’t know the second part at all, and I feel that all the best things are here … there are some unusually poetic moments. These appear in the music for Hartmann’s painting The Catacombs of Paris (Mussorgsky’s subtitle is Sepulcrum Romanum), which consist of nothing but skulls. At first Musoryanin has a depiction of a gloomy cavern, with purely orchestral chords held out long with a big tenuto. Then, above a tremolo … comes the first promenade theme; this is the glimmering of little lights in the skulls; here, suddenly, Hartman’s enchanting, poetic appeal to Mussorgsky rings out’. Mussorgsky’s Latin subtitle for this second part of the requiem means ‘with the dead in the language of the dead’. Mussorgsky’s heart of darkness finds itself shared between two versions. American John Boyd has used his long-term experience with wind, brass and percussion ensembles to extend the potential of Ravel’s brassy masses. But for the inimitable glow of the ensuing dialogue with the dead, the French master’s subtle halos and shadows remain uniquely evocative; it is surely apt that the soul of Mussorgsky’s work should be heard in his voice.
 IX. The hut on fowl’s legs (Baba-Yaga). ‘This drawing by Hartmann depicts a clock in the form of a witch’s hut on hen’s legs. Mussorgsky added the ride of Baba-Yaga (the witch) on a mortar’. It is fascinating to learn that Hartmann once went to a fancy-dress ball as the terrifying hag of Russian folklore. More Satanic than picturesque in Mussorgsky’s vision, her flight is perhaps most vividly delineated in the bony outlines of the daring arrangement by Leopold Stokowski (1882–1977), in which the four trumpets and eight horns seem to have come whooping from an encounter with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Cailliet’s arrangement having been first given with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1937 by Eugene Ormandy during Stokowski’s directorship there, Stokowski made this arrangement the following year – and Cailliet, as usual, was there to help. The fact that Mussorgsky’s original piano text was to hand made no difference to the exuberant and libertarian Stokowski, who did very much his own thing with the end of Baba Yaga as with so much else in the score.
 X. The Bogatyr (Heroes’) Gate at Kiev. ‘Hartmann’s sketch is his design for a city gate in Kiev, in the old-Russian massive style, with a dome in the form of a Slav helmet’. In his correspondence Stasov added: ‘There is a particularly beautiful church melody here, ‘As You are baptised in Christ’, and the sound of bells in an entirely new manner’ – a gift for the orchestrator, though few have gone quite as far as the brilliant Australian-born arranger and film-score composer Douglas Gamley (1924–1998), a name inexplicably absent from the New Grove Dictionary. In what one must presume is a happier meeting with Mussorgsky than the one in the 1970s horror film Asylum, where Gamley and Pictures first commingled, our last contender throws in several extra links, first a chorus and then an organ to deal with the ‘church melody’ and, of course, plenty of bells for this most Russian of finales.
Franz Liszt (1811–1886)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat minor
Liszt was born at Raiding, in Hungary, in 1811, the son of a steward in the service of Haydn’s former patrons, the Esterházy Princes. Encouragement from members of the nobility, allowed him in 1822 to move to Vienna, for lessons with the famous piano teacher Czerny. From there he soon travelled to Paris, the base for a career as a travelling virtuoso, his own technical brilliance inspired by hearing the demon violinist Paganini. Years of travel as a performer of phenomenal popularity ended in 1847, when he settled in Weimar as Director of Music to the court. Now he turned his attention to the development of a newer form of orchestral music, the programmatic symphonic poem, and, as always, to the revision and publication of earlier compositions. In 1861 he moved to Rome, where he eventually developed a pattern of life that he described as ‘three-pronged’. In Rome he pursued his religious interests, returning to Weimar to teach and advise a younger generation of musicians, and, now as a national hero, to Hungary, where he did much to foster national musical development. He died in 1886 in Bayreuth, where his daughter Cosima, widow of Richard Wagner, lived, concerned more with the continued propagation of her husband’s music than with her father.
By the age of fourteen Liszt had written two piano concertos, now lost. The first surviving concerto was sketched out in 1832, but only orchestrated in 1849, with the help of the young composer Joachim Raff, revised in 1853, and given its first performance in Weimar in February 1855 with Berlioz conducting, before further revision and publication in 1857. The concerto is novel in form, with movements that are cyclically connected, and caused some scandal by its inclusion of a triangle in the Scherzo, leading Hanslick, a hostile critic in Vienna, to describe the work as a ‘triangle concerto’.
The opening motif played by the strings has an important rôle to play in the concerto, answered by the octaves of the solo piano, which goes on to a cadenza, before the opening motif continues to be transformed in various ways. Muted strings open the B major Quasi Adagio, before a rhapsodic passage for the solo piano and elements of quasirecitative. A solo viola and then a solo clarinet lead to the soft triangle rhythms that introduce the Allegretto vivace, followed by the return of the opening motif, softly at first from the soloist, and then with full force from strings and trombones, before woodwind echoes of the Quasi Adagio. The concerto ends with a virtual summary of what has gone before. Themes from the Quasi Adagio are transformed, and elements derived from the opening motif of the whole work return, leading to a brilliant conclusion.
The Star-Spangled Banner
The versatile American arranger, orchestrator, composer and performer Rob Mathes made his arrangement of The Star-Spangled Banner in response to a commission from the National Symphony Orchestra, under its conductor Leonard Slatkin. It takes the form of a eulogy on the tragedy of 9/11, and has found a firm place in popular patriotic national repertoire.
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MUSSORGSKY, M.: Pictures at an Exhibition (orchest...