Pictures at an Exhibition – Musorgsky’s much loved collection for piano played by Steven Osborne
Listening link (opens in a new window):
on the iPlayer until 3 March
For non-UK listeners, this Spotify playlist is available:
Please note that recordings of these works by Steven Osborne are not available on Spotify – the Musorgsky however is available to hear on the Hyperion website. I have therefore chosen suitable alternatives and will change the time references below when the BBC iPlayer link expires.
What’s the music?
Rachmaninov – a selection of 4 Etudes-Tableaux (1916-17) (13 minutes)
Musorgsky – Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) (36 minutes)
What about the music?
Musorgsky‘s Pictures at an Exhibition is a much-loved group of pieces, capturing the imagination of performers and arrangers alike. Although written originally for piano it has enjoyed life in several guises, most famously in a tremendous orchestration by Ravel but also through arrangements for all sorts of instrumental combinations, including brass band and even pop group – which Emerson, Lake and Palmer released as a live album in 1971.
The composer wrote it so the listener takes the part of the viewer at an art exhibition – in this case a series of paintings by the Russian artist Viktor Hartmann. Some of the pictures are separated by Promenades, where Musorgsky takes a breather to portray the viewer moving between paintings, reacting to what they have just seen. The pictures often refer to Russian legend, and some of them are grotesque – Gnomus, for instance, a gnome with crooked legs, or The Hut on Fowl’s Legs, a depiction of the terrifying Russian witch Baba-Yagá. There are social interactions – children playing (Tuileries), a rich man meeting a poor man (Samuel Goldberg and Schmüyle) and a violent quarrel (The Market at Limoges) – as well as two striking depictions of buildings in The Old Castle and an imposing Great Gate of Kiev, with which the exhibition ends.
Complementing Pictures are four of Rachmaninov’s Etudes-Tableaux, part of a set of pictorial studies published in 1917. In this case the objects of Rachmaninov’s characterisation were hardly if ever revealed, but the four chosen invite the listener to create an image. They are a brisk march, a contemplation, a scene at a fair (as described by the composer) and a restless mood.
Steven Osborne won a Gramophone Award for his Hyperion recording of Pictures in 2013, and it was easy to see why here – there was the odd wrong note but this was generally because he was striving for maximum expression, which he found in a compelling performance. His pacing was ideal, so that some of the really loud moments – the old cart Bydlo grinding into action, or The Great Gate of Kiev in all its splendour – built inexorably from start to climax point.
The Rachmaninov was terrific, an indication that Osborne is spending a lot of time at the moment discovering his piano music. The Etudes-Tableaux do not really feature regularly in concert, partly because they are hard to bring off, but Osborne managed it handsomely here.
After the Musorgsky we had the considerable bonus of a serene Rachmaninov Prelude in D major, which tugged at the heart strings in all the right places.
What should I listen out for?
Because they are so well-loved, I have opted to describe each of the Pictures below:
6:31 – the second Étude-tableau, a spacious reverie with a particularly beautiful floated central section, where the key changes from C minor to C major (8:44).
11:41 – the third Étude-tableau, brightly voiced with crisp rhythms.
18:36 – the first Promenade. Musorgsky’s viewer has a quick stride!
19:51 – Gnomus. Dark, grotesque and unpredictable, with a heavy line for the piano’s left hand and some ominous trills (22:11). After this the viewer ambles on to….
23:40 – The Old Castle. The melody is a depiction of a troubadour singing – but the mood is grey and heavy of heart, the harmony almost completely static. A weighty Promenade moves the viewer on to…
28:43 – Tuileries. A delicate description of children’s play, over in a flash!
29:40 – Bydlo. A depiction of a Polish cart grinding into action. The heavy weight of the machinery is supplied by the piano’s left hand, and the cart recedes into the distance at the end. Osborne applies as much weight to this as possible while the vehicle lumbers past! The viewer pauses briefly to take stock, before…
34:10 – The Ballet of Unhatched Chicks in their Shells. An amazingly vivid depiction of the little birds in clipped figures for the piano right hand, played very delicately here.
35:21 – Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle. An imposing dialogue with the grandeur of the rich man (Goldenberg) and the quavering speech of the poor man (Schmüyle). After this the viewer moves on with another Promenade.
38:59 – The Market at Limoges. An excitable cackle of voices from the piano here, tripping over themselves and becoming increasingly out of control as they career into…
40:22. Darkness descends as we move underground, Musorgsky conveying the stillness of space. The melodic figure of the Promenade appears (from 43:16), though here it appears shrouded in mist
45:26 – The Hut on Fowl’s Legs. I often think this piece on its own inspired a lot of rock music – it has the sort of figure you would not find out of place on a King Crimson album. The hammering figure on the left hand feels like drums and bass guitar combined while the right hand is almost completely unhinged. This leads straight into…
The Great Gate of Kiev
48:40. The massive outlines of the gate are clear in the big block chords Musorgsky writes for the piano, which become ever more imposing as the piece progresses. Towards the end (50:22) a huge peal of bells rings out, then there is another reference to the Promenade (52:01) ahead of an emphatic final set of chords, by which time the pianist is playing as loud as he possibly can!
56:06 – Rachmaninov – Prelude in D major. A graceful and rather moving complement to Pictures!
Want to hear more?
Excerpts from Steven Osborne’s recording for Hyperion can be heard here
For more Musorgsky, I would suggest the Songs and Dances of Death, for low male voice and orchestra – which is ironically on BBC Radio 3 this Thursday 5 February , with a listener’s guide to come here! For more Rachmaninov I would suggest an earlier work, the Five Morceaux Op.3. This group of five pieces contains the famous Prelude in C sharp minor.
For more concerts click here