Friday, December 30, 2011

Mussorgsky's Pictures at an exhibition

Between 1986 and 1999 I built up a considerable collection of classical music CD's (exceeding 2000 CD's in total). For various reasons I have played them a lot less in the past decade, but I am embarking on a rediscovery tour that I intend to share in this blog. In the fifteenth installment, I re-examine that perennial favourite by Russian master Modest Mussorgsky (1839 - 1881): Pictures at an exhibition. Mussorgsky is recognized as one of the most original romantic composers, and if he had not succumbed to his drinking problem, who knows what more he could have achieved than he already did. As it is, several of his compositions have entered the standard repertoire. Pictures at an exhibition is his most famous, a suite in ten main movements composed for piano in 1874, although most people will know it in the orchestrated version created by Maurice Ravel. It was inspired by ten paintings by Viktor Hartmann, which are linked by a recurring promenade theme. For this post, I am comparing both the original and the famous orchestral transcription, but also four other transcriptions for orchestra, one for wind band, one for saxophone quartet, one for piano trio, one for two accordeons, two for organ, one for guitar, one for jazz band, one for synthesizer, one for rock band, one for heavy metal band, and one for avant-garde instrumentation. If you wonder what happened to the Classics revisited topic - this one has taken forever to complete, because I kept on finding new versions!

The original composition has the following parts:
The Gnome
The Old Castle
Tuileries (Dispute between Children at Play)
Bydlo (A Polish Ox wagon)
Ballet of the Chickens in their Shells
Samuel Goldenberg and Schmu├┐le
The Market at Limoges (The Great News)
The Catacombs (Roman sepulcher) - With the Dead in a Dead Language
The Hut on Fowl's Legs (Baba-Yaga)
The Great Gate of Kiev

Original version for piano solo (1874)
My version: Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca, 1983, 33 min)
It took me 43 years after I listened to the orchestrated version at age 11 to explore the original piano version. Unbelievable but true. And I was completely blown away by it, against my own expectations (I tend not to like piano pieces as much as orchestral pieces, generally speaking). The scenes come alive just as well as in the best orchestrations, and this is a feast from start to finish. Highlights: all of them, but in particular the promenades, Bydlo, and the Ballet of the chickens.  Hors concours, and possibly the best piano work ever composed.

Orchestrated version by Mikhail Tushmalov (1886)
My version: Munich Philharmonic/Andreae (BASF LP, 1974, 23 min)
A fascinating rarity: the very first orchestration of the piece, which was carried out by Russian-Georgian opera conductor Tushmalov, a pupil of Rimsky Korsakov. He omits several movements (Gnome, Bydlo, Tuileries, most Promenades), but the ones remaining sound truly Russian to me, if not particularly stunning. Of historic importance, definitely, but in terms of listening pleasure succumbing to many later orchestrations, both in terms of brilliance and completeness.

Orchestrated version by Maurice Ravel (1922)
My version: Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Guilini (DG, 1976, 35 min)
This is the most famous orchestral version, and actually the very first piece of classical music I listened to (I was 11, and this was used in a music class at high school), Incidentally, this was one of the first CD's I bought in the mid eighties. It remains a favourite, right from the fanfares of the opening promenade to the closing majesty of the Great Gates of Kiev. Ravel's orchestration is superbly refined, confirming once more his mastery in that subject. Every movement is brilliant, but I especially like the haunting saxophone in the Old Castle and the fireworks in Baba Yaga. This is absolutely hors concours.

Orchestrated version by Sergei Gortschakov & Leo Funtek (1922/1955)
My version: Toronto Symphony Orchestra/Saraste (Finlandia, 1996, 35 min)
A rarity, this version chosen by conductor Saraste alterantes two orchestrations, rather than picking one. Funtek's orchestration dates from the same year as Ravel's - and actually predating the most famous one by a few months. This version is more faithful to the piano piece, and takes less liberties than Ravel's effort. It is still highly effective in its relative simplicity. Gortschakov's from 1955 is more daring, and the combination works better than one would expect. Not as brilliant as Ravel by a long shot, but definitely worthwhile.

Orchestrated version by Leopold Stokowski (1939)
My version: Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Serebrier (Naxos, 2004, 29 min)
Leopold Stokowski was (in)famous for his transcriptions, but his take on Mussorgsky's masterpiece has a much higher degree of integrity and natural feeling than many of his others. The main controversy here is his decision to skip two movements (Tuileries and The market at Limoges), as he considered the compositions (not just Ravel's treatment) as too French, and possibly by Rimsky-Korsakov rather than Mussorgsky. |In the end, respect for the maestro's work, but I still prefer other versions, especially given that this is incomplete.

Orchestrated version by Vladimir Ashkenazy (1982)
My version: Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca, 1983, 33 min)
Considering Ravel's version too French, Vladimir Ashkenazy decided to create his own orchestration, trying to stick more closely to the Russian feeling of the original. In some ways he succeeds very well - I particularly like his more subdued version of the promenades. Less refined than Ravel's version (on purpose), but very skillfully done. Would this have been the only orchestrated version, it would have become as famous as Ravel's - now it still ranks somewhat lower. But it is well worthwhile to own this version in addition to its more famous companion.

Orchestrated version by various composers, compiled by Slatkin (2004?)
My version: BBC Symphony orchestra/Slatkin (BBC Proms, 2004, 36 min)
A bit of a mixed bag, this compilation by conductor Leonard Slatkin of separate orchestrated movements by Ellison, Gorchakov, Goehr, Naoumoff, van Keulen, Ashkenazy, Simpson, Cailliet, Wood, Leonard, Funtek, Boyd, Ravel, Stokowski, and Garnley. Some of the less known orchestrations have a bit of extra flavour that is worth while (bells in the first promenade, piano in the old castle, choir in the Great Gate), but in the end, there is a lack of sense of continuity (especially in the transition to the Great Gate of Kiev), and of all the orchestrations I have listened to, this is the one I am least likely to play again.

My version: Brass ensemble version by Elgar Howarth (1978?)
Philip Jones Brass Ensemble (Decca, 1978, 36 min)
I know several brass ensemble versions of famous classical music that I think work well. This is not one of them. The tempi are far too slow, turning the promenades into funeral marches, and the brass instruments do not begin to match the sonority of the full orchestral versions, nor the immediate impact of the original piano version. Probably fun to play, but no need to have this version in your collection.

Organ version by Jean Guillou (1988)
My version: Jean Guillou (Dorian, 1988, 36 min)
I always thought that the organ would be a splendid compromise between piano and orchestra for this composition. Granted, I am not a fan of Guillou's playing, but this version (the first organ transcription I got my hands on) did not work as well as I had anticipated. Very heavy handed, and as usual with this player/arranger, I get the feeling it is more about Guillou than the composer he is playing. The only track that really apealed to me here is Bydlo.

Organ version by Hansjorg Albrecht (2008)
My version: Hansjorg Albrecht (Oehms, 2008, 36 min)
Clearly superior in my opinion to the Guillou version, the Albrecht transcription succeeds very well in some parts (first promenade, the old castle), but falls flat in many others, including surprisingly the Tuileries, Bydlo, the chicken ballet and the very slow second promenade. For all its merits, it clearly falls short of both the piano and the orchestral version.

Guitar version by Kazuhito Yamashita (1980)
My version: Kazuhito Yamashita (RCA, 1999, 35 min)
An astonishing tour de force. One would not believe a single guitar to be capable of such a broad range of dynamics and emotions, but Yamashita makes a very strong case for this version. In the end, it has to yield to the original piano version and the best orchestrated versions, but it is definitely worth listening to - in the hands of capable guitar players, this would make a brilliant live concert. I particularly like the Old Castle in this rendition, but the usual fireworks of Baba Yaga and the grandeur of the Gate of Kiev are a bit too much for the instrument.

Two accordions version by Crabb/Draugsvoll (1997)
My version: James Crabb and Geir Draugsvoll  (EMI, 1997, 31 min)
Why not? Two accordions is one way to fill the gap between the piano version and a full-blooded orchestration. Then again... why? The musicians definitely give their all in this version, but in the end it comes off as a poor man's orchestra version. There is no added value that I could discover.

Wind quintet version by Joachim Linckelmann (1999)
My version: Wind Quintet Staatskapelle Berlin (Sony, 2003, 32 min)
Accomplished but lacking spirit - those were my first notes and I stick by them. Perhaps predictably, the old castle and the promenades come off well in this version, but in the end there is not enough here to hold my attention.

Piano trio version by Grigory Gruzman (1994?)
My version: Shostakovich Trio (not issued on CD?, unknown, 31 min)
Another combination that makes you wonder: is this going to work? Well, it does not really in my opinion. Where the violin and cello play a subdued secondary role there is insufficient difference with the piano version, and when they try to come to the spotlight, they do not succeed very well either, except in the Old castle and Bydlo (then again, I much prefer the full orchestra here), and especially the Catacombs. The craftsmanship is clear, the result is not quite satisfactory.

Saxophone quartet version by Johan van der Linden (1987)
My version: Aurelia Saxophone Quartet (EMI 1987, 30 min)
The saxophone quartet is a versatile and playful combination of instruments, and I had high hopes for this version. I was not disappointed. Not surprisingly, the promenades and the playful parts (Tuileries, Chickens, Marketplace in Limoges, Baba Yaga) are the most successful, but also the other movements are well suited for this instruments combination, even though there are times that one wishes for a more dynamic range, especially in the slower works like the Ox cart and the Great gate. In the end, this does not displace the original or the best orchestrations of course, but it is a fascinating fresh alternate take on this masterpiece, and I recommend it warmly.

Jazz band version by Allyn Ferguson (1962)
My version: Allyn Ferguson Band with Paul Horn (WEA, 1963, 27 min)
A fascinating version for big band style jazz band, with some improvisation around the main melodies, and in general at a brisk speed. At places this works very well (promenades, bydlo, chicken ballet, baba yaga), but the old castle and the catacombs lack some mood at this pace, and the gates of Kiev some majesty. All in all, this is still a commendably fresh look at this masterpiece, in a believable transcription to jazz style. Really recommended.

Progressive rock band version by Emerson, Lake and Palmer (1972)
My version: ELP (Island, 1972, 34 min)
My version: ELP (Polygram, 1994, 15 min)
I love classical music and progressive rock, so the combination should be pure gold, right? Wrong. The 1972 live concert comprises a relatively small selection of the Mussorgsky suite (four paintings and three promenades) unfortunately interspersed with three original ELP compositions, that in terms of atmosphere in general do not really fit in. Especially Emerson's organ noodling in the track called Blues Variation (in-between the Old Castle and The hut of BabaYaga) is completely out of place, and defies the purpose of creating a stroll through a gallery in music. Focusing on Mussorgsky's work, the promenades are boring and terribly heavy handed, the Gnome and the Old Castle mediocre. Predictably, the Baba Yaga sequence fares best in the musical fireworks that ELP set off, even their own interlude here fits the mood (if only they had not introduced lyrics as well here). Then again, the ending with a raped version of the Great Gate, including singing that was a bad idea to start with, and is of a quality below acceptable even for a live record, is the worst of a bad effort. Their 1994 studio re-make is better in terms of singing and recording, but omits even more of Mussorgsky's work, with only two promenades, the gnome, Baba Yaga and the great Gate, whilst keeping their own composition The Sage. Their efforts made me introduce a new category in the evaluation: "avoid".

Heavy metal band version by Mekong Delta (1996)
My version: Mekong Delta (IRS, 1996, 36 min)
The German progressive heavy metal band Mekong Delta issued their version in 1996. It is a rather straightforward transcription, including all original Mussorgsky pieces, but the rock instruments really give this its own characters. It works surprisingly well, especially the various promenades, the ominous Gnome, the hilarious Chicken ballet, and the impressive Catacombes . Perhaps the greatest surprise is The old castle, which sounds completely different than any other version of it, and is still convincing. The only small disappointment for me was Baba Yaga, which comes over as relatively bland and uninspired. Unless you are a die-hard "classical music only" lover, this is a fascinating alternative, and well worth exploring. The best rock version of a classical music piece I have ever heard. The album also includes their versions with an orchestra, but I prefer the rawness of the band on its own.

Electronic version by Isao Tomita (1975)
My version: Tomita (RCA, 1975, 37 min)
Listening to this one, I don't know whether to laugh or cry. The musicianship by Japan's electronics wizard avant la lettre Isao Tomita is clear, but the atmosphere is totally wrong in these renditions, especially the promenades (in one of them, one gets the impression of the spectator crawling slowly over the museum floor). The sci-fi effects created and the synthetic voices totally do not match the themes in most cases. An exception is the chicken ballet, which sounds quite appropriate. The hilarious factor overall is so great though that I can't bring myself to give the "avoid" score.

Avant garde version by Kawabata Makoto and Tsuyama Atsushi (2010)
My version: Zoffy (Nebula, 2010, 33 min)
A recent version by the duo Makoto and Atsushi, operating under the name Zoffy, in a live recital. A mix of instruments, including for instance synthesizer, electric organ, bouzouki, sitar, tambura, and hurdy gurdy, with instrumental sounding voices thrown in for good measures. It is fascinating and at times almost unrecognizable in its weirdness, and would probably indeed work well as a live concert. 

Summarizing recommendation, based on my own taste (classical):

Hors concours: Original piano version, Orchestrated version (Ravel)
Essential: none
Important: Orchestrated version (Ashkenazy), Orchestrated version (Gortschakov & Funtek)
Good to have: Orchestrated version (Tushmalov), Orchestrated version (Stokowski), Saxophone quartet version (van der Linden), Guitar version (Yamashita)
Not required: Orchestrated version (various, compiled by Slatkin), Organ versions (Guillou, Albrecht), Double accordion version (Crabb/Draugsvoll ), Brass ensemble version (Howarth), Piano trio version (Gruzman), Wind quintet version (Linckelmann ).
Avoid: None

Summarizing recommendation, based on my own taste (jazz/pop/rock):

Hors concours: None
Essential: None
Important: Jazz band version (Ferguson)
Good to have: Heavy Metal band version (Mekong Delta), Avant garde version (Makoto/Atsushi)
Not required: Electronic version (Tomita)
Avoid: Progressive rock band versions (ELP)