Tag Archives: Pictures at an Exhibition

Pictures at an Exhibition (Mussorgsky)

Pictures at an Exhibition (Mussorgsky)
Scott Davie (piano)


Piano Sonata No 1; Fragments;

Oriental Sketch; Piano Piece in D

minor; Piano Piece in A flat


ABC Classics 476 3166


reviewed by Neville Cohn



Scott Davie provides one of the most satisfying recordings of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition currently available on compact disc. His musicality runs like a silken thread through the performance.

Recorded sound is exceptionally fine – it is in the best sense “real” – allowing the listener to savour Davies’ interpretative probings to the full. There’s not a dull moment in a performance brimming with insights that make even the meanest succession of notes eminently listenable.

The Promenade episodes that dot the score are a case in point. In lesser hands, they can so easily sound routine, even humdrum. Not so here. In turn strident and gentle, they are like fine musical sorbets that provide the aural equivalent of clearing the palate between courses at a sumptuous feast.

If ever there was a work in which the first rate is inspired by the third rate, it is this. Had Mussorgsky not written this work – triggered by drawings and paintings of his friend Victor Hartmann – it is almost certain these quite ordinary efforts would long since have disappeared into history’s rubbish bin. But Mussorgsky’s wonderfully imaginative work – written in homage to his friend who ahd die aged a mere 39 years – ensures that his friend’s lacklustre drawings will be thought of as long as this keyboard masterpiece remains in the standard repertoire.

Consider Davies’ account of Bydlo. How masterfully he suggests – in the most unequivocal of terms – the ponderous, lumbering nature of a ox-drawn wooden cart. The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks is another gem, its insouciance coming across with featherlight buoyancy. By contrast, Catacombs, with its overlay of a tolling, treble-register bell, has about it an all-encompassing mood of desolation, of sadness beyond sadness.

In the first movement of the Rachmaninov Sonata, Davies marshals its tsunami of notes with remarkable success, giving to this epic utterance a sense of structure that would elude most others game enough to play it. Certainly, the wildness that lies at the heart of much of the first movement is impressively conveyed. Davies, too, manages to make the meretricious note spinning that is the finale sounds far better than it really is.

In a bracket of miniatures, Davies does wonders with Fragments coming across as a hushed essay in wistfulness. And one could hardly imagine a more sympathetic interpreter of the Piano Piece in D minor, its mournful essence judged to a nicety.

Copyright 2006 Neville Cohn



Pictures at an Exhibition Night on Bare Mountain

Boris Godunov – Symphonic Synthesis;

Entr’acte to Khovanshchina (Act IV):

Mussorgsky transcribed Stokowski

The Cleveland Orchestra
Oliver Knussen (conductor)

DG 475 646-2
TPT: 1:05:31

reviewed by Neville Cohn 

For much of his career, Leopold Stokowski was second in fame only to Arturo Toscanini. Born plain Leo Stokes in England, a name change, an infallible gift for self-promotion and a genuine musical gift ensured that Stokowski was seldom out of the public eye.

While his flamboyant arrangements for large orchestra of numbers of Bach’s organ works often teetered on the brink of vulgarity, many of his other orchestrations are most effective. And one of the best of these is his re-working of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

For years, Ravel’s version has been the orchestration of choice in concert programs worldwide. Its justified popularity, though, has largely overshadowed Stokowski’s version. More’s the pity because Stokowski’s orchestration makes for utterly compelling listening. By any stretch of the imagination, this re-writing of Mussorgsky’s masterpiece for the piano is a tour de force. I listened with astonishment to Oliver Knussen’s direction of the Cleveland Orchestra.

Where has this superb instrumentation been since Stokowski placed it on paper in 1939? It is far too fine to fall again into oblivion. Hats off to Knussen for unearthing the score and placing it on disc. He is very much the man for the job, giving point and meaning to every nuance of Stokowski’s often dazzling re-working. Don’t listen to it late at night, though. A combination of a first rate transcription, Knussen’s baton wizardry and an often incandescent orchestra in top form are bound to fire the imagination and put paid to a night’s tranquil sleep.
Listen to it in the morning instead. It’s as vitalising as a bottle of Vitamin B tablets.

I was particularly struck by Stokowski’s orchestration of the opening Promenade and its numerous other appearances as the work unfolds. Initially, it has a stately, expansive quality; on its returns it comes across variously as a dignified amble (expressed in such hushed terms as to border on the inaudible) or played so slowly as to teeter on the edge of inertia. It’s a very different experience to that of Ravel’s transcription – and for those encountering Stokowski’s version for the first time, it may well make for startling listening.

Knussen takes his forces through Bydlo, for instance, at a pace far brisker than usually encountered; as an impression of a lumbering ox cart, it doesn’t really convince. But this is the only reservation in an otherwise utterly absorbing, magnificently coloured alternative view of one the most well-loved masterworks in the canon.

Those exposed to – and offended by – the crassness of some of Stokowski’s re-workings of Bach organ works may need some encouraging to listen to his versions of some of Mussorgsky’s works.

Take the plunge; it will almost certainly be a rewarding experience, not least an account of Night on Bare Mountain where conductor and orchestra seem positively to relish coming to grips with Stokowski’s quite inspired instrumentation; whining strings and the sheer intensity of a presentation that borders on the satanic, inflame the imagination.

The same level of brilliance is apparent in Stokowski’s so-called Symphonic Synthesis of extracts from Boris Godunov with the barbaric splendour of some of Mussorgsky’s themes providing listening that rivets the ear. Much the same can be said of the brief entr’acte to Khovanshchina (Act IV).

Throughout, Knussen is a passionate advocate for both Mussorgsky and Stokowski to whose originality and brilliance he pays unfailingly articulate homage.

Copyright Neville Cohn 2004