Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839-1881) was a member
of the "mighty handful" of Russian composers who sought
to give Russian music a truly nationalist character. Interestingly,
of these five only one, Balakirev, was a professional musician
– César Cui was an army officer, an engineer of fortifications,
Borodin was a doctor and teacher of chemistry, Rimsky-Korsakov,
a naval officer, whilst Mussorgsky, after leaving the army, spent
his life as a government clerk.
As a young army officer, Mussorgsky had ambitions
to become a musician and, though completely untrained, tried his
hand at various compositions, eventually falling under the influence
of Balakirev, and later, the hugely influential polymath, Vladimir
Stasov, who was to become Mussorgsky’s first biographer. At first
he was dismissed by Stasov as an idiot who was completely lacking
in ideas. Balakirev concurred with this opinion for a number of
years, but Mussorgsky persevered, and how lucky we are that he
did. Who could imagine a musical landscape without Boris Godunov,
Khovanshchina, The Songs and Dances of Death, Night on the Bare
Mountain and Pictures at an Exhibition? Certainly it is true to
say that while Mussorgsky was underrated during his lifetime,
his music today is far better known than that of either César
Cui or the group’s founder, Balakirev.
Mussorgsky’s friends looked upon him as someone
with genuine talent and almost revolutionary originality, but
also as something of a bungler who couldn’t organise himself to
bring all his innovative ideas to fruition. Thus it was that after
his untimely death at the age of 42 from epilepsy brought on by
alcoholism, composer friends like Rimsky-Korsakov sought to complete,
and even in some cases to almost rewrite, several of his works.
In short they were attempting to cover up what they saw as his
shortcomings. Doubtless these well-meaning people helped establish
Mussorgsky’s reputation but for many years music lovers often
believed that much of his contribution was due to his friends’
‘assistance’. Today we look upon his output in a much more balanced
and appreciative way.
This new release from Naxos of the National Symphony
Orchestra of Ukraine is an excellent place to start to explore
Mussorgky’s musical legacy. What interested me most was the opportunity
to compare the two versions of "Night on the Bare Mountain",
and I made some surprising discoveries. Both versions are played
with great panache and the orchestra’s enthusiasm for the music
comes striding through but I am now a champion of Mussorgsky’s
original version over the more familiar one that Rimsky-Korsakov
made after Mussorgsky’s death. This version is far more eerie
than Rimsky-Korsakov’s more often played and recorded one. It
has a much more raw and unrefined quality and thus seems far more
able to evoke a witches’ sabbath than its more famous counterpart.
Just compare the opening bars of each version to note how the
original has a genuinely ghostly feel to it – something nasty
is lurking in the woodshed and it’s coming out to play! Mussorgsky’s
use of the drums is different to Rimky-Korsakov’s and the beat
evokes an almost primaeval picture – more akin to Stravinsky’s
"Rite of Spring". I was reminded of Walt Disney’s "Fantasia"
with fire and smoke pouring from volcanoes.
Rimsky-Korsakov said about several works that
he was ‘touching them up to make them more understandable to the
public’, and, as with "Khovanshchina", that he had smoothed
out what he considered to be its ‘uncouth’ qualities. But for
me it is precisely these qualities that make the music exciting.
‘Sanitising’ them loses essential elements and thus diminishes
Mussorgsky wrote "Pictures at an Exhibition"
as a set of piano pieces to describe the works of his artist friend
Viktor Hartman who had recently died. It is interesting to note
that none of Mussorgsky’s friends sought to do anything with this
work; indeed Rimsky-Korsakov said that it was unworkable in any
other medium. It was Ravel who took up the challenge and orchestrated
it and it is this version that is presented here. It is beautifully
played. Highlights for me include "The Old Castle",
which has just the right feeling of venerable antiquity and "Ballet
of the Chickens in their Shells", a truly delightful evocation
of this picture depicting children’s costumes. "Samuel Goldberg
and Schmuyle", perfectly points up the stark contrast between
the two old Jews, one rich and full of the self-importance and
the other whose life was characterised by the misery of abject
poverty. Finally the "Great Gate of Kiev" is played
in a way that shows pride in the band’s heritage.
The three other discs I have of this work are
of Norman del Mar, conducting the London Philharmonic, Yan Pascal
Tortelier with the BBC Philharmonic and Jeno Jando playing Mussorgsky’s
original piano version. For me neither of the other orchestras
can match the Ukrainian orchestra’s commitment. They both seem
to be playing in a very pedestrian fashion – there’s no involvement
with the music. They play all the notes but impart none of the
feeling of wonder this work evokes and it is playing like this
that makes such a well-known piece seem hackneyed. Listening to
Jando’s playing of the piano version is fascinating and it is
remarkable how Mussorgsky managed to make his piano writing sound
orchestral. Normally I am not a great fan of transcriptions –
I feel that it is a kind of betrayal of the composer that another
believes they have a right to re-score someone else’s work. I
always felt this with Rudolf Barshai’s rendering of Shostakovich’s
8th string quartet into a ‘chamber symphony’. It adds
nothing to the music. If you only knew it in that version you
might very well have good reason to admire it, but once you’ve
heard the original…. Having said that I have to say that I can’t
imagine being without Ravel’s orchestral version of ‘Pictures
at an Exhibition’. It is a brilliant example of the magic that
a great orchestrator can work. It is so full of colour that it
really brings the pictures to life.
Two fillers are included. The "Hopak"
from "Sorochintsy Fair" packs incredible vitality into
its 1.42 minutes playing time and makes you eager to see the whole
opera whilst "Golitsin’s Exile" from "Khovanshchina"
is suitably mournful in its presentation.
To sum up then I can think of no other disc of
these works I would rather have than this new Naxos one. As always
the price is enough to encourage everyone to have it on their
shelves, whether as a first copy or joining others readers may