Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition – arranged by Peter Breiner (PB052)
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Instrumentation: 4 (IV=alf) +1, 4+1, 4+1, 4+1 - 4, 4, 4, 1 - timp - perc - hp - pf - cel - str
Pictures at an Exhibition was written in 1874 as a set of piano pieces, a translation into music of paintings, designs, models and drawings by Mussorgsky’s friend Victor Hartmann, who had died the year before. These piano pieces have been orchestrated by various composers, with the version by Maurice Ravel probably the best known. Peter Breiner has here orchestrated the pieces for an orchestra of piccolo, three flutes, alto flute, four oboes, cor anglais, four clarinets, bass clarinet, four bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, four trumpets, four trombones, tuba, timpani, and six percussion players, with bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, tam-tam, anvil, temple blocks, cabassa, tambourine, tubular bells, glockenspiel, xylophone, marimba, and vibraphone. The orchestra used also has piano, harp and celeste, with a string section of sixty players.
The exhibits are linked by a Promenade, as the visitor to the exhibition goes from exhibit to exhibit. The titles of the works are largely self-explanatory. Gnomus is a design for nutcrackers in the shape of a gnome; The Old Castle shows a troubadour singing outside the castle walls and the Tuileries depicts children at play and quarrelling, while nursemaids gossip, in the famous Paris gardens. Bydlo is a traditional Polish peasant ox-cart, with its creaking wooden wheels slowly turning; Ballet of the Chickens in their Shells shows designs for children’s costumes, as described in the title, and Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle, the names of those portrayed being apparently the invention of the composer, is a picture of two Jews, one rich, one poor, a present by Hartmann to the composer. In Limoges market-place old women gossip, discussing the fate of an escaped cow, and more trivial nonsense, while the Roman Catacombs, subtitled Sepulchrum Romanum, are lit by a flickering lamp, the skulls piled on either side beginning to glow in the light from within. This is linked to the eerie With the Dead in the Language of the Dead. The macabre continues with The Hut on Fowl’s Legs, a clock in the form of the hut of the witch Baba Yaga, who crunches up children’s bones and flies through the night on a pestle. The impressive conclusion offers a design for a triumphal gate in Kiev, to commemorate the escape of Tsar Alexander II from assassination in 1866. The music contrasts the massive structure with the sound of a solemn procession of chanting monks.
Note on the Orchestration:
I was not trying to re-create Mussorgsky’s orchestral sound in this recording, but actually to create a contemporary sound. I wanted to create it without using a lot of unusual sounds and to stay within the limits of the traditional symphony orchestra with a substantial expansion in woodwind and percussion. I tried to create a contemporary sound with unusual combinations and settings.
From the very beginning, the first Promenade combines alto flute, cor anglais and violins divisi in eight parts, with martellato violas. In places the piccolo doubling another solo woodwind at the octave and a fifth above creates an organ-like mixture effect, with the bassoon in Il vecchio castello. The possibility of setting the harmonies within one group of woodwind, thanks to the employment of four instruments in each group, creates also a lot of unusual sounds. Some solo passages were assigned to instruments that would not be really expected in that rôle — a trumpet solo in Tuileries, and a combination of trombones, four flutes and vibraphone in Cum mortuis in lingua morta.
There are a few things added to the score that were not in the piano version, such as horn glissandi in Gnomus and Bydlo, harp/vibraphone figurations in Gnomus, piano/celeste figurations in Il vecchio castello, flute figures in Samuel Goldberg and Schmuyle and La cabane sur des pattes de poule. At the end a body of 104 musicians creates quite a spectacular Great Gate of Kiev.