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FEATURED SELECTION: Mussorgsky-Rimsky-Korsakov

The MHS Review 397 VOL. 12, NO. 1 • 1988

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David M. Greene


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The story of how this work came into being has been told so many times that it need be only sketched here. In the early 1870s, while Modest Mussorgsky was working on Boris Godunov, Vladimir Stassov introduced him to a rising young St. Petersburg architect, only five years older than the composer, named Victor Hart­mann (or Gartmann in the Russian). The two became quite close. One evening, as they were walking home, Hartmann stopped momentari­ly, complaining of shortness of breath. Mussorgsky made light of it and they went on. Not long afterwards he had news that Hartmann was dead of a heart attack at the age of 39.

Mussorsky's menage with Rimsky-Korsakov had recently ended with the latter's marriage, Stassov was abroad, and the composer, feeling very lonely and discouraged, went into one of his alcoholic tailspins. A year later, on the occa­sion of a memorial exhibition of Hartmann's drawings (theatrical designs, travel sketches, im­aginary structures, etc.), Mussorgsky conceived a suite of descriptive piano pieces to pay his respects. Mussorgsky was always conceiving grandiose projects, but, like nine operas besides Boris, they all wound up somewhere in the valley of the shadow that lies ''hetween the idea / And the reality/ Between the motion/ And the act." Now. for once, he completed one.

He worked at it with delight and passion, and, mirabile dictu!, he found himself quite happy with what he had done. However, no one else seems to have been at the time. Rimsky edited the suite and published it in 1886, but word got around that it was not "pianistic," and for decades it gathered dust in its original form.

Considering that reputation, it is odd that Rim­sky, who loved to orchestrate Mussorgsky, did not orchestrate Pictures. But in 1891 he did con­duct the first orchestra version--eight of the 10 pictures, without the "promenades," arranged by one Mikhail Tushmalov (1861-1896). And there were other orchestral essays. I also own recordings of arrangements for brass ensemble, organ, Moog synthesizer, and (yes) solo guitar. The first recording of the original piano suite that I ever encountered was one by Alfred Mirovich on Royale in the early 1940s, though Brailovsky's may have preceded it by a bit.

But of course it is Ravel's orchestration, com­missioned by Koussevitzky, that is regarded as "the" orchestration par excellence. The Schwann catalog does not even hother to in­dicate Ravel's part in it, listing it under the suite·s title and the composer's name indiscriminately with the piano versions. Ravel had had some Mussorgskian experience a few years earlier, when Diaghilev had set him and Stravinsky to orchestrating the opera Khovantschina--a pro­ject that fizzled.

Koussevitzky·s 1922 commission. however, probably came at a good time. Ravel's war ser­vice (as an ambulance driver) had played hoh with his health and had got him out of the never-­easy habit of composing, and these were fallow years. He apparently enjoyed the work, gave it his all, and produced one of the great orchestral canvases (despite some mumhling that he failed to understand the Russian soul).

The current Schwann lists 28 recordings of Mussorgsky-Ravel. So why another one? Well, first, one of the best kept secrets in this nation is that our neighbors to the north and south turn out classical records of quality-an activity in which the Canadian Broadcasting Company has played an important part. The Vancouver Sym­phony was established in 1931 and claims to have a larger subscriber list than any other such organization in North America. Japanese-born Kazuyoshi Akiyama has been its music director for the past 15 years.

The performance sounds impeccable to these ears and the vinyl recording to which they listen­ed is absolutely stunning. Rimsky's Russian Easter gives extra value for the money.

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