Modest Mussorgsky
Pictures at an Exhibition


4.5
superb

Review

by Daniel Incognito EMERITUS
May 29th, 2006 | 21 replies


Release Date: 1874 | Tracklist


When asked to name a Russian composer from the Romantic Period of Classical music, most people today would frown. For the few that could exert their knowledge on the subject, most would only be able to name Pyotr Tchaikovsky. Yet behind Tchaikovsky lurks a wealth of passion, brilliance and creativity. Although it would be hard to signal any men out from such a prodigious crowd, Modest Mussorgsky took his own approach to the music, and created a small collection of greatness.

Mussorgsky was part of a group of Russian nationalist composers known as 'The Mighty Five.' Yet unlike many of his contemporaries, Mussorgsky did not try and follow the path laid out by so many composers before him. Mussorgsky attempted to create his own sound of raw power, emotion and beauty that was influenced greatly by Russian folk music, foreign composers and Russian church music. Although he only composed part-time, and left behind a small collection of works, Mussorgsky's work visibly progressed then declined. He gradually opted for more of a sense of realism in his music, portraying subjects in their full imperfect form. Before his steep decline into the murky waters of alcoholism, Mussorgsky composed one of his finest works, the innovative piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition.

Although stunning in its own right, Mussorgsky's piano composition is outshined in some areas by Maurice Ravels orchestral version of Pictures at an Exhibition, that enhanced the intensity and passion of the music. Pictures at an Exhibition was a tribute to Mussorgsky's friend Viktor Hartmann, a Russian artist and architect. Yet rather than just opting for a simple tribute, Pictures at an Exhibition is an imaginary musical tour through a collection of Hartmann's drawings and watercolours. The structure of the suite showcases Mussorgsky at his most innovative, composing the album as if it was an actual walk through the exhibition. Each Promenade (leisurely walk) between pictures takes on a different form and emotion, creating a natural flow between pictures. Yet even more noteworthy is the way that Mussorgsky merges the Promenade into two of the movements, Cum mortuis in lingua mortua and The Great Gate of Kiev, sounding enigmatic in Cum mortuis in lingua mortua and nationalistic in The Great Gate of Kiev.

Each of the 10 pieces represented by Mussorgsky takes on their own unique form, ranging from the mysterious, to the patriotic and even to haunting darkness. Some of the artworks portrayed have been lost or destroyed, yet Mussorgsky's musical representations clearly portray what the paintings may have looked like. For such a subjective art form, Mussorgsky's music focuses in on the essence of each painting, capturing their spirit into 30 minutes of musical brilliance. With each note Mussorgsky recreates a stroke of the brush, every note falling into place to paint each striking picture.

Mussorgsky's ability to imagine the sounds of each painting shines through in The Old Castle, where the sombre Alto-Saxophone defines the path of the song. The mood is not altogether outcast; the powerful backbone of the castle is portrayed through a deep and weighty double bass. Yet emptiness takes over the song, bringing forth thoughts of a lifeless and emotionless medieval castle. Bydlo is equally downcast at first. Although the interpretations of the opening bars vary (some begin very loudly, and others softly), the rhythmic percussion section sets an unconstricting marching tone. After fluttering string instruments overtake the pounding march, the rhythm becomes increasingly overpowering, in a state of booming fortissimo. But down the pressure goes, as the marching object soon continues on into the distance.

Pictures at an Exhibition is not a one trick pony however, and offers melodramatic happiness in equal quantities. Tuileries and Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks are both heavily excitable, prancing around in a flurry of flutes and strings. Mussorgsky does not quite capture their radiant beauty as well as he captures power, truth and lack of it. Equally energetic is The Market Place at Limoges, which buzzes along like a real market place, lively and enticing.

Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle shows off Mussorgsky at his highest point of realism in Pictures at an Exhibition. Clearly portraying two men, their sounds contrasts greatly, poor and rich in conversation with each other. Eventually the heavy theme of the rich man drowning out the poor man's high-pitched muted trumpets.

Mussorgsky's touches of realism in his music are enthralling, yet his strong Russian nationalism also makes an appearance. The Great Gate of Kiev is largely patriotic, blaring trumpets and other brass instruments overpower small segments of darkness, like light at the end of the tunnel. For a modern audience, the strong nationalism may be a bit overdone, but it is nevertheless, quite an enjoyable movement.

The Catacombs is one of the most exhilarating movements, at times forcing the listener to strain to hear, then quickly entering a state of fortissimo. The darkness surrounding the song encases the people within a catacomb of brass chords. The two songs after that, Con Mortuis in Lingua Mortua and The Hut on Fowl's Legs, follow a path of increasing darkness, with equally dark drawings to match. Mussorgsky's ability to lead the audience on a path of discovery is perhaps one of his finest attributes, each step forward relates to the previous step, and foretells of the next step. Each step points the audience in one direction, yet never forces its meaning onto the audience. Of course the darkness is shattered by Mother Russia, in The Great Gate of Kiev, which pushes away all the bad in all its nationalistic glory.

If there is anything wrong with Ravels Orchestral version, it is that it misses the intricate details in parts. The overall sound and mood is captured in every song, yet the large orchestral version misses the deftness and human touch of the piano. The attention to detail of the original piano version allows it to recreate each dot of ink, focusing in not only on the main object's plight, but rather their emotions, thoughts and personalities too. Ravels Orchestral version may be bastardized, but it does make the score more accessible to a knee-jerk reaction society, allowing the same themes and aspects of human life to be accessed by a wider audience. As such, Mussorgsky's original piano composition may be a more challenging listen, but it offers larger rewards. Once again though, Ravels Orchestral version is much more suited to the modern listener.

No matter what aspect you focus in on, every facet of Pictures at an Exhibition offers a truly unique artistic experience. From the creatively brilliant composition, to the rich and deep emotion; Pictures at an Exhibition can only be looked at as exquisite. Modest Mussorgsky truly does create a unique sound that is just as enthralling today as it was back in 19th century Russia.



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Comments:Add a Comment 
Liberi Fatali
Emeritus
May 29th 2006


1588 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

I have to say, that was the hardest review I've ever written. And I'm not even sure I did it justice.

The Jungler
May 29th 2006


4827 Comments


Great reveiw, I love reading classical reviews, though I can hardly sit through a whole album of the style of music.
In response to the intro paragraph: I think I might know one, but his name escapes me. My 7th grade math teacher was a classical music buff (in addition to being a fat stupid son of a beeyotch) and might have said one during that year. To be honest I actually thought this was a Modest Mouse review at first glance.
Once again, great work Liberi.

Liberi Fatali
Emeritus
May 29th 2006


1588 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

To be honest I actually thought this was a Modest Mouse review at first glance.

Haha yeah, I saw a Modest Mouse review on the front page, so I thought it would be appropriate timing.

Iluvatar
Staff Reviewer
May 29th 2006


16089 Comments


Yeah, classical is unfortunately something that I can only listen to for ever so long, and only read reviews for ever so long. It was pretty damn good from what I did read though.

masada
May 29th 2006


2733 Comments


Mussorgksy - good stuff. Great review too.

Liberi Fatali
Emeritus
May 30th 2006


1588 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

I found it kind of hard to imagine what this sounds like, though it's probably a lot to do with my own inexperience with orchestral music.

The overall sound is like many Classical Soundtracks of today. Think Star Wars, Gladiator, Lord of the Rings etc.This Message Edited On 05.30.06

Mazeppa
May 30th 2006


15 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

No, it's far more satisfying to listen to than any movie soundtrack.
As for the review, nicely written. I'm only familiar with the piano version but it's a great piece of music.



Iluvatar
Staff Reviewer
May 30th 2006


16089 Comments


So uh, how does it feel to be essentially your own section?

Mazeppa
May 30th 2006


15 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

Personally I only just noticed that we now have a classical section. I might have to finally review something now.

Liberi Fatali
Emeritus
May 31st 2006


1588 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

No, it's far more satisfying to listen to than any movie soundtrack.

I didn't say it was as satisfying as a movie soundtrack. There are movie soundtracks that compare, but this is in a class of its own.

zuzek
January 18th 2008


751 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

Props for trying to review a work such as this, well done. Would dare to say this is one of the pieces you have to hear during the time that's given to you.

Cesar
October 24th 2008


2732 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

I have to make a presentation for this piece in my History of Russia class. Want to listen to this so much.

taylormemer
October 24th 2008


4917 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0 | Sound Off

It's all amazing.

Liberi Fatali
Emeritus
October 25th 2008


1588 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5


I have to make a presentation for this piece in my History of Russia class. Want to listen to this so much.

You'll enjoy it, and you should be able to find plenty to talk about.

Cesar
December 15th 2008


2732 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

I was reading this again, and forgot to say the first time that this review is ace. Excellent.

1musicgal
February 4th 2009


1 Comments


I enjoyed reading the information and the reviews. I was confused about one of the pieces, "Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle." After checking and rechecking, I think that the information about the instrumentation is incorrect. The 1st theme, Andante, by the string section is Samuel Goldenberg's. The 2nd theme, by the trumpet, is Schmuyle.

I hope that you might check this information that I have provided out for yourself, just to be sure.
Thank you.

Liberi Fatali
Emeritus
February 8th 2009


1588 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

I enjoyed reading the information and the reviews. I was confused about one of the pieces, "Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle." After checking and rechecking, I think that the information about the instrumentation is incorrect. The 1st theme, Andante, by the string section is Samuel Goldenberg's. The 2nd theme, by the trumpet, is Schmuyle.

Been so long since I've listened to that song, I'll have a relook at it.

qwe3
October 2nd 2009


21362 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

I prefer this when it's played on piano rather than Ravel's orchestration, but it's still incredible

Voivod
Staff Reviewer
November 28th 2011


6205 Comments


There is a German metal band, called Mekong Delta, that issued in 1997, an excellent adaptation of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition for rock/metal group.

Digging: Seduced (AT) - The Proclamation

taylormemer
November 28th 2011


4917 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0 | Sound Off

Of all the possibly works to be adapted, Pictures at an Exhibition has earned the most. Many of them pretty terrible.



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