Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition
(arranged for Piano and Orchestra by Lawrence Leonard)
Mussorsky composed his piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition as a tribute to his artist friend Victor Hartmann, who died suddenly in 1873. A memorial exhibition, featuring Hartmann's sketches and paintings, was organised the following year and fittingly, Mussorgsky's personal homage became the musical equivalent of a tour around the gallery, with pianistic depictions of assorted pictures interspersed here and there by a recurring Promenade theme which represents the visitor wandering from one picture to another.
The evocative titles of the various pieces, together with the instinctive feeling among many musicians that here was an orchestral piece struggling to break out of its two-stave format, occasioned the first of many orchestrations: this was made in 1891 by Mikhail Tushmalov, a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov, and featured seven of the "Pictures."
Sir Henry Wood made a highly picturesque arrangement in 1915, setting all the "Pictures" but only the first of the "Promenades". The first absolutely complete orchestration came from Leo Funtek, a Slovenian musician working in Finland, where he conducted the Helsinki Philharmonic in the premiere of his version in 1922. That same year, a version for "Salon Orchestra" appeared in Berlin, transcribed by Giuseppe Becce, a noted composer and arranger of music for silent movies.
Simultaneously, the most celebrated orchestration of all was in progress - that by Maurice Ravel. It was commissioned by the Russian conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who knew of Ravel's admiration for Mussorgsky. The first performance of the French composer's version of Pictures at an Exhibition duly took place in Paris on 3rd May 1923, and it was received with acclaim.
At that time, the publishing firm of Bessel were still jealously guarding their rights in Mussorgsky's works, and they gave Koussevitzky permission to perform this independent orchestral version only on one condition that he should not allow anyone else to conduct it, stating their conviction that an arrangement of one of their piano publications would bring them no commercial advantage whatsoever.
That Bessel were mistaken became evident as the Ravel orchestration proved ever more successful. Since Koussevitzky was to retain sole propriety conducting rights in his commission for a period of five years, Bessel hastened to bring out a rival orchestration of their own. This they did by approaching a precocious twenty-one-year-old Russian-born student of Ravel himself, a pianist named Leonidas Leonardi. Doubtless the publishers were hoping for an even greater triumph from the pupil than had been achieved by the master, but in this they were to be disappointed, for although Leonardi dedicated his version to Stravinsky and conducted the Lamoureux Orchestra in its Paris premiere in June 1924. and for all that Walter Damrosch performed it in New York the following December, it has remained in virtual obscurity ever since.
(Undaunted by the failure of this particular project, however, Leonardi immediately took up residence in the United States and pursued a varied musical career in theatre, films, radio, and the concert hall which lasted until his death in New York in March, 1967.)
Meanwhile, Koussevitzky had taken over the Boston Symphony Orchestra and given the American premiere of the Ravel transcription on 7th November, 1924. Five years later, he published the score in his own Editions Russe de Musique and in 1930 made the first recording of Ravel's version, on 78rpm discs. The Philadelphia Orchestra, not wanting to be outdone by the opposition in New York and Boston, engaged one of their own orchestra members, Lucien Caillet, to make an arrangement which their new conductor, Eugene Ormandy, could call his own, and he too recorded it on 78s.
Leopold Stokowski, Ormandy's predecessor in Philadelphia and a great rival of Koussevitzky's, now entered the fray, pronouncing the Ravel "too French." In 1939, both in concert and on record, he introduced his own transcription which, with a lavishly-coloured musical canvas, aimed at a more "Slavic" style of orchestration.
Toscanini, not to be outdone by Koussevitzky and Stokowski took up the Ravel version, put aside (yet again!) his famous "do as written" credo, and proceeded to make it even more spectacular by re-orchestrating parts of it himself. Meanwhile, back in the USSR, Nikolai Golovanov also took on the Ravel score. He followed Sir Henry Wood's example of dropping all but the first of the "Promenades," and did a drastic re-touching job of his own on Ravel's orchestration.
In 1942, Walter Goehr (whose Pictures from the Crimea was still to come) was commissioned to prepare an arrangement more accessible to smaller forces unable to run to the large orchestra required by Ravel. Rather curiously, he dropped Gnomus altogether and made Limoges the first of the "Pictures." Of the many other versions that have followed too numerous to mention here, that most notable in recent years have been those by Sergei Gortchakov, written in the 1950s, and the 1982 orchestration by Vladimir Ashkenazy.
This "world premiere recording" is a previously unperformed arrangement by a living musician: the composer and conductor Lawrence Leonard. His version of Pictures at an Exhibition dates from 1977 and is unique amongst all the other orchestrations in that he has gone back to Mussorgsky's original score and , by retaining and enlarging the piano part, has made the solo instrument the starting point for his conception. It is, in fact, the piano which remains the chief protagonist throughout and almost always occupies centre stage. Indeed, this setting creates in effect a Mussorgsky Piano Concerto, such is its affinity with the "sound-world" of other celebrated Russian piano concertos, most notable those by Tchaikovsky.
The opening Promenade serves as a purely orchestral introduction, a typical start to any piano concerto, though an intriguing pre-echo of the solo instrumental is present at the very beginning, where horns, trumpets and tubular bells cleverly suggest the sound of a piano with its sustaining pedal held down. (This "Promenade" has been utilised as the introduction to a "composite" version, taken from nine different orchestrations, devised in recent years by the American conductor Leonard Slatkin.
The soloist enters with Gnomus, Mussorgsky's depiction of Hartmann's bizarre sketch showing a toy nutcracker in the shape of "a little gnome walking awkwardly on deformed legs." Promenade II is a piano solo, but muted strings then steal in to introduce The Old Castle. Here the soloist plays the melody in both hands - an oddly haunting effect - and to add to the "out-door" atmosphere, in which a troubadour is singing in front of a mediaeval castle in Italy, an eerie breeze is distinctly heard, wafting through the battlements.
Promenade II alternates between piano, brass and strings, whilst the Tuileries Gardens in Paris bring the woodwinds into play. Bydlo, that huge Polish ox-wagon, lumbers past to a heavy, pounding piano before finally disappearing into the distance.
The soloist is given a brief rest during the elegiac Promenade IV but re-enters for the witty and humorous Ballet of the Chickens. The next picture, showing Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle, has the orchestra for the pompous Goldenberg and the piano for the whining Schmuyle.
Soloist and orchestra reinforce each other both in Promenade V (the one omitted in the Ravel orchestration) and in The Market Place at Limoges - a picture depicting a bunch of argumentative Frenchwomen. The interior of the Paris Catacombs, which shows three candle-lit figures, one of them Hartmann himself, is suitably sombre, as is Cum Mortuis in Lingua Mortua - Latin for "With the dead in a dead language" - in which the "Promenade" theme is restated in melancholy mood.
The Hut on Fowl's Legs now makes a shattering entrance. The tiny Russian witch Baba Yaga, who eats human bones, was represented in Hartmann's drawing by a clock in the Russian style of the fourteenth century, carved in bronze and enamel with elaborate ornamentation. Mussorgsky's music depicts Baba Yaga's ride through the air in her mortar, and Lawrence Leonard, as in many places in his version, makes the soloist's part more powerful by having the orchestra take over the accompanying harmonies. Even more colour is added by the whistling wind which can he heard as the little witch rushes through the sky!
And so to The Great Gate of Kiev, where the piano is again predominant, thundering out those massive chords in the grand Rachmaninov manner. It brings to a close this novel "concerto concept," so expertly applied to one of the most popular works in the Russian repertoire.
© 1992 Edward Johnson