Modest Mussorgsky (21.03.1839 – 28.03.1881) was one of a group of Russian composers who became known as ‘The Five’¹, a group bound together in the common goal of creating a nationalist school of Russian music. His best known works include the opera Boris Godunov, the orchestral tone poem Night on Bald Mountain and the piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition. The third of these was orchestrated in 1922 by the French composer Maurice Ravel and it is that version that we are adding to our collection.²
The last few years of Mussorgsky’s life were dominated by alcoholism that led to him suffering three successive attacks of alcoholic epilepsy. Subsequently his health improved briefly but he died shortly afterwards at the age of 42.
Pictures at an Exhibition is a suite of ten pieces (plus a recurring and varied Promenade). The music depicts the composer’s tour of an exhibition of works by Viktor Hartmann, with each of the pieces of the suite serving as a musical illustration of an individual work.
We recommend a version conducted by Mariss Jansons in which members of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra deliver a truly absorbing performance. In this recording every detail of the orchestration is lovingly brought out. Gnomus (Dwarf) is simply terrific and the whole work is played with a level of finesse that entirely befits Ravel’s orchestration. This two CD set also includes a remarkably fine account of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade in which Jansons once again pays great attention to detail whilst delivering a performance full of sweep and grandeur.
¹ The other members were: Alexander Borodin, Mily Balakirev, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and César Cui.
² It is also a fine work in its form for solo piano and we can recommend Paul Lewis’ outstanding performance on Harmonia Mundi.