Rock fans are accustomed to losing their heroes too young, but classical music has a 300-year head start on flames that burned too brightly for this world. For every Hendrix and Cobain there’s a Mozart and Schubert, all gone too soon, leaving however much genius behind and a wistful longing for more.
The Russian modernist Modest Mussorgsky was one such soul, with a life trajectory more 1970s CBGBs than 1870s Winter Palace. Brash, arrogant, contemptuous, consumptive, a proto-punk; he flamed out through alcohol, poverty, and despair at age 42. He left behind one opera that flopped and another unfinished, a few handbooks of songs, an orchestral piece that his own mentor rejected and wouldn’t perform, and a piano suite written in grief for an artist friend that had himself passed away too soon.
From this unpromising legacy came some of the most enduring music of the western tradition. Mussorgsky’s music was rediscovered and reworked, orchestrated by his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov and re-arranged by later devotee Maurice Ravel. The failed and unfinished operas, “Boris Gudonov” and “Khovanshchina,” respectively, have become staples of the repertoire. The rejected tone poem, “A Night On Bald Mountain,” did better with Disney than Balakirev. The piano suite, both in its native and orchestrated versions, lives on today as the ever-beloved “Pictures at an Exhibition.”
How Many Are There?
A quick look at Amazon reveals 107 pages of choices to buy this masterpiece, ranging from the traditional piano or orchestral presentation to jazz arrangements, metal bands, accordion trios and prog rock supergroups, among others. Of course, one of the problems plaguing classical music today is the insistence on the familiar — almost the same situation Mussorgsky faced. The challenges facing the classical world are fodder for another column, but for now, it’s worth asking: How many new recordings do you need of an old war horse? Especially when there are great ones being re-introduced in hi res?
I normally would not have sought out yet another version of “Pictures,” but when I heard John Newton of Soundmirror speak at an HRAC-hosted panel at the 2014 CES, I realized that I might be missing something essential. Here’s a guy that’s been lovingly re-working classics in high resolution via the original analog tapes from the RCA Living Stereo label, which had its heyday in the 1950s and pioneered some of the earliest mainstream stereo recordings. Original LP versions of this particular recording by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, when you can find them, are rare and expensive, and more than half a century old. Seeing it at HDtracks in 176/24 hi res files, I jumped.
My go-to version of “Pictures” isn’t quite as old. Lorin Maazel’s terrific 1979 Telarc LP with the Cleveland Orchestra has stood the test of time for both work and play, offering both redemptive listening and the requisite system-busting audio challenge. One of the earliest digitally recorded LPs (I hear the sound of analog fanboys retching) conceived, in part, to showcase the dynamics of the then-new technology, Maazel’s rendition can make you weep in the soft parts while kicking your speakers’ butts during its climaxes. Not many demo-worthy recordings attain this balance of art and science. However, this new-old Reiner version may be the topper.
Performance and Sonics
I won’t go through all the pieces of the well-known suite; fans already know it closely, but a few musical impressions are worth sharing. The opening Promenade, which serves as a connective bridge throughout the suite, is actually a bit curt for my taste. It’s supposed to take us on a stroll into a museum, where a gallery of paintings by Mussorgsky’s departed friend Victor Hartmann hang in silence. Reiner introduces this theme briskly, a bit more staccato and march-like than my preferred association with this material. But even in this short intro, you hear a foreshadowing of the mighty Chicago brass section, which will come to greater effect later; as will the Promenade theme itself.
Highlights worth hearing anew include Gnomus, a painting of a deformed, perhaps mythological figure that may have started out as a nutcracker, but ended up as the “evil villain” music in too many horror films to count. Its softer sections, scored for wisps of glockenspiel and twisting violins that anticipate Bartok by almost half a century, evoke the listener’s pity, only to be kicked away by enormous monoliths of sound that demand we no longer look the other way…before actually moving on our way to the next Promenade, which is richer and fuller, and really does capture the feeling of stopping in your tracks to gaze at the next painting in a museum.
The Marketplace is more bustling than I’ve ever heard it; you can easily imagine the haggling and barking in its frenetic energy, which carries over to the awe-inducing Hut on Fowl’s Legs; a witch’s lair that seduces you inside before the brass pounds you with tritone dissonances and reminds you that the face of evil isn’t pretty. What is pretty is the Tuileries, where children romp through the iconic French garden, and the third appearance of the Promenade, which unlike the initial entrance to the museum, is now informed by all we’ve seen and heard, less sure of itself, more contemplative, wiser.
The showstopper of course, is the finale, The Great Gate At Kiev. Written to depict a massive city gate to be built as tribute to the Czar (though never actually built), the piece is meant to be quintessentially “Russian” music (let’s leave present-day Kiev out for now), with moments of triumph, tragedy and mysticism. I was especially moved by the soft counter-theme in this recording, taken from Orthodox liturgy and reminding the listener that glory is always built on sacrifice. The mournful chant builds in scale and tempo, with the amazing Chicago brass ultimately rising it and connecting it back to the Promenade theme, now huge and heroic — and not incidentally, a trying test for even the most capable playback system. These massive blocks of orchestra, punctuated by even huger tympani and cymbals of celebration, simply leave you breathless at the end. Your initial instinct is applause.
Other Recordings of Note
If you’re a fan of “Pictures At An Exhibition,” this RCA Living Stereo hi res version is well worth owning, but other versions off the beaten path will give you thrills as well. Serious audiophiles are usually well aware of Jean Gulliou’s ingenious pipe organ arrangement (Dorian DOR-90117, if you can find it), which will sorely test any subwoofer that rises (or at 16Hz, descends) to the challenge.
For piano arrangements, my favorite comes from Ivo Pogorelich (Deutsche Grammophon 0289 437 6672, 44/16), a former enfant terrible himself, who takes an idiosyncratic approach that’s distinctly postmodern. In his hands, the pieces can sound as angular and unexpected as Webern, while still being mindful of Mussorgsky’s essential romantic empathies. In particular, Pogorelich’s Great Gate is remarkable; a mathematical, yet tender crescendo that somehow brings Bach and even Xenakis into the mix. Recordings like these are one reason why old chestnuts do deserve new versions, at least once in a while.
I look forward to hearing other hi res releases from the RCA Living Stereo catalog and Mr. Newton’s loving hands. This one was a welcome addition to my (re)collection.