Review by Tim
In 1873 the artist and architect Victor Hartmann died at the premature age of 39. Although he was an artist of energy and talent, today his name would hardly be known, were it not for the inspiration his friendship provided to that strange and moody genius of Russian music, Modest Mussorgsky. The two had met three years before at the home of their mutual friend, Vladimir Stassov, and had quickly recognized in each other a sympathy of aim and purpose.
Hartmann was part of a growing movement of artists and craftsmen whose aim was to develop a new aesthetic, based on traditional Russian designs and motifs. Eschewing the classical architecture of Europe, Hartmann designed structures based on medieval and contemporary folk styles. And what Hartmann and his colleagues were to architecture, Mili Balakirev and his circle (which included Mussorgsky) were to music.
Mussorgsky was devastated by Hartmann's death. In a letter to Stassov, who was then out of the country, the composer's grief poured out in a spate of wild and bitter words:
"This is how the wise usually console us blockheads, in such cases; 'He is no more, but what he has done lives and will live' Away with such wisdom! When 'he' has not lived in vain, but has created - one must be a rascal to revel in the comforting thought that 'he' can create no more. No, one cannot and must not be comforted, there can be and must be no consolation - it is a rotten morality!"Mussorgsky nonetheless found his consolation or, at least, a certain amount of catharsis. Stassov, on his return to St Petersburg, organized a memorial exhibit in Hartmann's honor, featuring his dead friend's drawings and watercolors. Upon attending this exhibition, which opened early in 1874, Mussorgsky experienced an almost overwhelming torrent of inspiration:
- from Moussorgsky by Oskar van Riesmann
translated by Paul England
Tudor Publishing, 1935
"Hartmann is bubbling over, just as Boris did. Ideas, melodies, come to me of their own accord, like the roast pigeons in the story - I gorge and gorge and overeat myself. I can hardly manage to put it all down on paper fast enough."The composer's "feast" resulted in a series of musical sketches for the piano, taken from ten of the roughly four hundred pictures displayed at the exhibition. The sketches are introduced and linked by a series of Promenades, variations on a theme that depict the composer's stately and somewhat ponderous progress from one exhibit to the next. "My own physiognomy peeps out all through the intermezzos," Mussorgsky wrote with a sort of rueful self-deprecation. The ten sketches are as follows:
- from Moussorgsky
In a letter of Musorgsky's to Stassov, written in June, 1874, just before the "Pictures" were completed, the composer calls this movement Sandomirzsko Bydlo, ie, "Cattle at Sandomir", and adds that the picture represents a wagon, "but the wagon is not inscribed on the music; that is purely between us".Hartmann's sketch depicted a Polish dray, drawn by a team of oxen. The music is eloquent of the steady, powerful pull of the beasts.
- from "Victor Hartmann and Modeste Musorgsky", by Alfred Frankenstein
Published in The Musical Quarterly, July, 1939
Barry Douglas turns in a truly wonderful interpretation of this suite. The New York Times reported that he had "stunned the Soviet audience" with his performance of Pictures at the Eighth International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1986, and he eventually carried away the gold medal, the first Westerner to do so since Van Cliburn's performance in 1958. Since I first collected this work (originally on vinyl, later on CD), I have made a point of acquiring Douglas' other recordings whenever I could find them. I've never been disappointed.
Two other works are included on this recording, and I'll touch on them briefly. Franz Liszt's 'Dante' Sonata is a chilling work that will raise the hair on the back of your neck. It was inspired by a poem written by Victor Hugo that compares the fate of the tortured souls in Dante's Inferno with the earthly lot of most men and women. Liszt however ends the sonata on a note of redemption and hope.
The final selection on this recording is Isolde's Liebestod. Liszt's transcription for piano of Wagner's final aria in Tristan und Isolde is as powerful as it is graceful.
Images for Pictures at an Exhibition