Ravel & Mussorgsky
Pictures of an Exhibition
Herbert von Karajan, conductor
Lazar Berman, piano
Deutsche Grammophon, 2004
Modest Mussorgsky composed the piano suite Pictures of an Exhibition under the impression of the exhibition of drawings, stage designs and watercolours setup at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St Petersburg in memory of his late friend, architect Viktor Hartmann, with whom he shared the same conviction that Russian art was to develop free from foreign influences.
Mussorgsky composed the Pictures in few weeks in 1874, inspired by watercolours that now are lost for the most part, but it was not until 1886 that the work was published by Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, who edited many of Mussorgsky’s compositions as Night on Bald Mountain and the Songs and Dances of Death. The popularity of the Pictures was such that at least a dozen orchestrations of them have been made, but the most famous remains Ravel’s version, composed in 1922 and first published in 1930. It is this orchestral version that has been recorded by Herbert von Karajan in the present album, while Lazar Berman performs the original version for piano.
The success or failure of the Pictures depends on the ability to characterize every piece separately because every one of them has its proper autonomy and this is exactly what Karajan does. The solemnity of the first Promenade introduces the listener with pomp in the museum rooms until the meeting with the disturbing Gnome, that Karajan describes lingering on every detail with extreme lucidity to make him appear in all his deformity. It follows – among other pieces – the arcane atmosphere of The Old Castle, that Karajan conducts with implicit reference to chivalric times, the lovely and a little frivolous picture of the Parisian Tuileries, the amusing Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks and above all the magnificence of the last piece, dedicated to The Great Gate of Kiev.
Listening to the piano version after such richness of orchestral sounds may create an impression of emptiness at first, but this is only momentary because Lazar Berman is a worth companion to Karajan and his Pictures are no less “coloured” and inspiring. His Gnome is not as morbid as Karajan’s and seems more human, The Old Castle is delicate and soft and the next Promenade is so lively that it gives the impression that the visitor has suddenly awakened from a dream, the Market Place at Limoges is animated and brilliant and creates a marked contrast with the stillness of the next Catacombs.
Both Karajan and Berman’s “exhibitions” deserve a visit and it cannot be considered but a good idea that Deutsche Grammophon has decided to release them together.