Musorgsky – Pictures at an Exhibition, Songs and Dances of Death / Gergiev

Featured recording: Musorgsky – Pictures at an Exhibition, Night on Bare Mountain, Songs and Dances of Death (Ferruccio Furlanetto (baritone), Mariinsky Orchestra / Valery Gergiev (Mariinsky)


A new all-Musorgsky disc by Valery Gergiev and his Russian charges, returning to the composer whose operas Gergiev has recorded with great success.

What’s the music like?

On paper this release is a brilliant way to start a Musorgsky collection, because it contains his two best loved works. Pictures at an Exhibition, appearing in its celebrated orchestration by Ravel, is a wonderful set of character pieces that fully captures an artistic exhibition and the viewer’s response to it. Night on Bare Mountain is equally vivid in its portrayal of a witches’ sabbath, and the right performance can strike genuine fear into the heart. Finally the Songs and Dances of Death for baritone and orchestra (not as depressing as they sound through opportunities taken for gallows humour!) appear in the orchestral version made by Shostakovich.

Does it all work?

It should do – because this is surely a home banker for Valery Gergiev, conducting both the music of his homeland and a composer in whose music he specialises. Yet something is awry, for two of the three live performances feel routine at best.

Pictures lacks spark and feels very polite, taking its time to reveal plenty of things in the score but rarely getting out of second gear, as though the exhibition has only a few days left to run. There is no edge to Gnomus, which should ideally be unhinged, and no sense of culmination in The Great Gate of Kiev, the work’s crowning glory. The Old Castle, while suitably mournful and featuring a lovely saxophone solo, drags its feet, while Bydlo, the old cart whose machinery lumbers down the track, has a disarmingly smooth passage here.

There are a few exceptions. The characterisation of Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle is brilliant, thanks to a sharp trumpet portraying the latter character, while the clucking of The Ballet of Unhatched Chicks in their Shells is winsome. But overall this version lacks real excitement.

Sadly Night on Bare Mountain is little better, and sounds like a version going through the motions, with an incredibly limp final chord. There are moments where the electric charge is more pronounced, especially when the dance music comes in around 1’45”, but otherwise this is disappointing fayre with little sense of terror.

All this is redeemed by Ferruccio Furlanetto, the commanding singer chosen for Songs and Dances of Death. There is an incredibly strong resonance to his voice, effortlessly taking charge of the Lullaby, while hurling his all into the end of the Serenade and the fatal triumphalism of The Field Marshal. Gopak, the third song, starts with threadbare bass sounding appropriately ghoulish, the sentiments of the poem laid as bare as the orchestration. Gergiev is inspired here, completing a version that stands tall alongside any competition.

Is it recommended?

Overall, no – unless you are desperate for a recording of the Songs and Dances of Death. For Pictures, alternative versions include those conducted by Claudio Abbado and Carlo Maria Giulini, with Abbado again the choice for Night on Bare Mountain.

Listen on Spotify

You can judge for yourself by hearing the album on Spotify here

A Russian Song and Dance

A Russian Song and Dance – a varied program of Shostakovich, Musorgsky and Glazunov from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Ilan Volkov


Yuri Vorobiev (bass voice), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Ilan Volkov (pictured) – City Halls, Glasgow, live on BBC Radio 3, 5 February 2015

Listening link (opens in a new window):

on the iPlayer until 6 March

For non-UK listeners, this Spotify playlist is available.

With no recordings of this music made by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra to date, I have chosen suitable alternatives:


What’s the music?

Shostakovich – a selection from King Lear (1971) (18 minutes)

Musorgsky – Songs and Dances of Death (1875-1877) (18 minutes)

Glazunov – The Seasons (1900) (38 minutes)

What about the music?


A poster for the 1971 Grigori Kozintsev’s King Lear

Russian composers took frequent inspiration from the works of Shakespeare, especially Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, responsible for arguably the two most famous interpretations of Romeo and Juliet. Shostakovich wrote a mass of film and ballet scores, but only encountered The Bard twice – once in Hamlet and twice in the darkly scored King Lear – for the stage in 1940 and then in 1971 for Grigori Kozintsev’s film.

Musorgsky wrote Songs and Dances of Death, his last and most popular song cycle* for voice, between 1875 and 1877, but he did not live to be old enough to orchestrate the four songs. The collection was orchestrated initially by Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov, who worked together in making a number of the composer’s scores fit for orchestral purpose. Shostakovich himself arranged a version in 1962, but here the conductor Ilan Volkov opts to use a ‘cleaner and simpler’ version by Edison Denisov from 1982.

As to the texts, they are each a nail in the coffin – but Lullaby, Serenade, Trepak and The Field Marshal do on occasion have slightly lighter moments, the rich timbre of the Russian bass is offset by gallows humour from the accompaniment. The texts are difficult – a mother’s last vigil over an infant in Lullaby, with death standing at the door, then the story of a terrible courtship in Serenade, an apparition in a forest for Trepak and finally, famously, The Field Marshal, who surveys his dead soldiers as though in victory.

Glazunov is often looked down on by people outside of the history of Russian music, regarded as an inferior composer to those around him such as Rachmaninov or his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov. Yet he had a big part to play in the country’s musical history and was hugely admired by Shostakovich and Prokofiev if not Stravinsky. As well as teaching and conducting he wrote nine symphonies, ballets, concertos and a number of orchestral pieces – The Seasons among them. As Ilan Volkov says in a brief interview before the performance here, Glazunov is in effect a bridge between Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky where ballet is concerned. As you will hear from this work, there is rarely anything less than a hummable tune!

Glazunov opts to begin with the Spirit of Winter, expressed through dance variations for Frost, Ice, Hail and Snow that have orchestral touches similar to those used by Tchaikovsky in The Nutcracker. The music gets warmer as Spring arrives, then positively bathes in the Summer sunshine, before the big tune of the whole evening is revealed at the onset of Autumn. Not for Glazunov the bleakness of the trees stripped bare – rather he prefers to celebrate the leaves whirling around his head!

Performance verdict

A really well thought out program from the typically enterprising Ilan Volkov, leading his BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra charges in a powerful concert. The Shostakovich is dark and rather foreboding, and although lacks the intensity of the composer’s symphonies it still carries some of his distinctive musical fingerprints, which the woodwind in particular find.

Yuri Vorobiev gives a thoroughly authentic performance of the Musorgsky, and even listening on the radio you can catch a glint in the eye at times. The reduced orchestration of Denisov helps with clarity when placing the words.

The Seasons is a warm-hearted performance, with charm aplenty from the orchestra. The woodwind sparkle, with excellent contributions from flute (winter) and oboe, while the strings have a really nice bounce to their rhythms.

The rustic Autumn Bacchanal is a winner!

What should I listen out for?


3:40 – a stern brass statement

9:03 – The creeping (and creepy) line assigned to low bass strings – pure Shostakovich, this! It opens out into a tense orchestral discourse at 10’58”

14:47 – The start of the storm. A curiously slow storm, this does nonetheless have staying power.

19:33 – another dark passage of music, culminating in a bold clarinet cry at 20:42 (brilliantly played!)


The words can be found here, on page 20 of the pdf booklet

23:40 – A reedy introduction cuts to the singer who sings sorrowfully. Listen to the single strike of the percussion when he proclaims how “death the deliverer is here!” Vorobiev shows beautiful control at the end

28:05 – The Serenade, and the “magical, tender night!” has a silvery sheen in Denisov’s orchestration. There is a terrible stroke of death right at the end from the orchestra.

31:58 – The dance of Trepak is a rather grotesque affair, Vorobiev taking the lead even as the forest closes in through swirling woodwind and strings.

36:12 – a triumphant start to The Field Marshal, with strings swirling and trumpets blazing in the heat of battle. A thrilling and ultimately uplifting end, the singer defiant even in death.


1:05:22 – the cold winter casts its frozen spell, but with elaborate flourishes from the orchestra less than two minutes in Glazunov quickly sets out his stall for a colourful piece.

1:11:37 – a jaunty second part of the Ice variation, showing off the composer’s prowess with orchestration

1:21:07 – a sweeping violin melody that sees the culmination of Spring.

1:22:35 – The lovely Waltz of Corn Flowers and Poppies, music that brings summer in with a real swing – though Volkov is very subtle in this performance, the poise of the waltz reminding me of the Strausses.

1:26:36 – the Variation within Summer, complete with burbling clarinet.

1:31:58 – probably the most famous tune heard within The Seasons. This is the soaring Bacchanal, the dance that opens Autumn. The accompaniment effectively describes the leaves swirling around!

1:39:55 – the bracing final section, The Satyr.

Want to hear more?

For more Glazunov, the Violin Concerto is heartily recommended, a single movement piece lasting 20 minutes that packs in thrills and spills with plenty more good tunes.

This website is already exploring a fair bit of Musorgsky, having talked about Pictures at an Exhibition earlier in the week. For even more I would take a deep breath and explore the incredible epic opera Khovantschina, one of the great cornerstones of Russian opera.

For Shostakovich there is plenty more to hear, but keeping in with his works for stage and screen, I would suggest the ballet The Age of Gold, a story about football!


*song cycle – as the name suggests, a group of songs written by a composer tending to focus on a specific theme or author.

For more concerts click here

Pictures at an Exhibition – Steven Osborne

Pictures at an Exhibition – Musorgsky’s much loved collection for piano played by Steven Osborne

steven-osborneSteven Osborne (piano) – Wigmore Hall, live on BBC Radio 3, 2 February 2015

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.

Performance verdict

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