|About this Recording
8.550044 - MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition / BALAKIREV: Islamey
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839 - 1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition
The later nineteenth century was the great age of nationalism in Russia, a period in which the Russian language became a fit vehicle for the work of great novelists and poets and in which music sought development through recourse to Russian traditions, sacred and secular. There was a curious ambivalence, apparent in music as elsewhere in the cultural and political life of the country. On the one hand Western Europe seemed to offer a model to follow, the course embraced by Anton Rubinstein and composers of a more cosmopolitan turn of mind; on the other hand Russia was seen as the saviour of Europe, with a messianic role opposed to the decadent West.
The Five, the group of Russian nationalist composers under the leadership of Balakirev, nick-named by the polymath librarian Stasov "the Mighty Handful", involved themselves in the creation of a truly Russian form of music. Balakirev himself deplored the foundation of what he saw as German-style conservatories, established in St Petersburg and Moscow in the 1860s by the Rubinsteln brothers, but it was difficult to defend his followers against a charge of amateurism or dilettantism. Balaklrev himself had professional training and worked as a musician, apart from a brief interruption of his career, when religious melancholia induced him to work for the state railways. Rimsky-Korsakov, who was to acquire considerable technical skill, particularly in orchestration, was at first a naval officer; Cesar Cui was a professor of military fortification; Borodin was a research chemist and Mussorgsky, when he left the army, became a monstrously incompetent and unreliable civil servant.
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky was born in 1839, the son of a land-owner. As a young officer he had musical ambitions, and without any training in composition tried his hand at an opera, as well as lesser compositions for the entertainment of his friends. It was a meeting with Cui and with the composer Dargomizhsky that led him to a more influential association with Balakirev and Stasov
After leaving the army, Mussorgsky held various positions in the civil service. At his death in 1881, the result of epilepsy induced by alcoholism, he left a great deal unfinished, including the opera Khovanshchina, later completed by Rimsky-Korsakov, who took it upon himself to serve as musical executor to both Mussorgsky and Borodin. His great Russian opera Boris Godunov was to be revised by Rimsky-Korsakov, who applied his technical abilities to smoothing out apparent crudities In other works.
Pictures at an Exhibition, a set of piano pieces written in 1874, is intensely original in its use of texture, and has lent itself well enough to re-arrangement for all the colour of a full orchestra. The work commemorates an exhibition of the work of the artist Victor Hartmann, who had died a year before, the exhibits linked by a Promenade, with which the work opens. The first picture is a design for nut-crackers in the shape of a gnome, and the second of an old castle, before the gates of which a troubadour sings. The visitor moves on to a picture of the Tuileries Gardens, where children quarrel and play and nursemaids gossip, and this is followed by a picture of a Polish peasant ox-cart, its heavy wooden wheels slowly turning.
The Promenade leads now to a costume sketch for children, chickens in their shells, with arms and legs protruding, and to a picture of two Jews, one rich and one poor, a present from Hartmann to the composer, who invented his own names for the two represented. In the market at Limoges old women gossip, discussing the fate of an escaped cow and more trivial nonsense, as Mussorgsky suggested.
The Catacombs, subtitled Sepulchrum Romanum, are lit by a flickering lamp. The skulls stacked on each side begin to glow, lit from within, as the music sets out to suggest the eerie scene, with the dead, in the language of the dead. The macabre continues in the clock in the form of a hut on fowl's legs, the hut of the Russian witch Baba Yaga, who crunches the bones of her victims and flies through the night on a pestle.
The triumphant conclusion shows a design for the Great Gate at Kiev, a monument to commemorate the escape of Tsar Alexander II from the hands of assassins in 1866. The music contrasts the solemnity of a liturgical procession with the massive domes and columns of the projected gateway.
At his death in 1881 Mussorgsky left much unfinished. When he had been compelled to give up his government position in 1880, his supporters had offered the sum of 80 rubles if he would complete the opera Sorochintsy Fair within the year. At the same time he responded in part to their request for piano arrangements of items from the score, of which the famous Hopak is probably the best known. Fragments of the opera were published piecemeal in the early years of the century, and various attempts were made to provide, from other sources, a complete version for the stage.
On the Southern Shore of the Crimea belongs, in inspiration, to the autumn of 1879, during which Mussorgsky was granted leave of absence to undertake a concert tour of the Ukraine and Crimea with the singer Darya Leonova. He included in his part of the programme a grand musical picture, Storm on the Black Sea, now lost, and the two slighter sketches, dedicated to Leonova, are part of the same repertoire. Une larme belongs to the same period of the composer's life and was written in 1880.
Balakirev wrote his oriental fantasy Islamey in 1869 and dedicated it to Nikolay Rubinstein, director of the Moscow Conservatory, who gave the first performance to a mixed reception. Even Borodin, a firm friend of the composer, was unable to praise music that he found confused and long. The technical demands made by the work, however, were a principal factor in ensuring a certain popularity among virtuoso performers, and Rubinstein and Liszt were to include it in their concert repertoire.
Islamey is based on three themes, the first, Islamey, and the second both noted by Balakirev during a visit to the Caucasus in 1860, and the third taken from an Armenian song that the composer had heard at Tchaikovsky's house.
In 1902 he prepared a revised edition, including a new passage linking the exciting opening section to the more lyrical Armenian middle section, and making some changes to the conclusion of a work that has long proved the best known of everything Balakirev wrote.
He is currently engaged in a project to record all of Beethoven's piano solo works for Naxos. Other recordings for the Naxos label include the concertos of Grieg and Schumann as well as Rachmaninov's 2nd Concerto and Paganini Rhapsody.
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