Mussorgsky & Ravel

Release Date: 03 February 1997

Label: Deutsche Grammophon

Producer: Karl August-Naegler

Recording place: Henry Wood Hall, London

Total playing time: CD [62:02]

Copyright: © 1997 Deutsche Grammophon


03 February 1997

“Hartmann is boiling as Boris boiled”, Mussorgsky wrote in a letter of June 1874, describing the genesis of his Pictures at an Exhibition; “sounds and ideas have been hanging in the air”. The work was inspired by sketches by his friend, the architect Victor Alexandrovich Hartmann, who had died the previous year, and reveals a composer indifferent to the aestheticism of impressionistic colour effects but transfixed by picturesque scenes from everyday life and by the bewitched realm of Russian folklore. Mussorgsky had a marked predilection for a work such as the Totentanz of his musical model, Franz Liszt, a piece whose pungent harmonies had first been heard in St. Petersburg in 1865. With his typically Russian fascination with dance, he was able to translate movements, visual sources of his imagination, into highly inventive rhythms: a limping gnome (no. 1) as a forebear of Scarbo; a heavy ox-drawn cart that recalls the puffing and panting of Volga boatsmen (“Bydib”); the comical wriggling of chickens in their shells (no. 5); and a magnificent procession through the Bogatyrs’ Gate at Kiev.

Life, wherever it manifests itself, truth, however bitter it may be, and a language both bold and sin¬cere, all at point-blank range: that’s what I want. […] I am trying to transcribe in as vital a manner as possible the abrupt changes of intonation that one finds in the course of any conversation between two people, in order to achieve a type of melody created by human speech. It is essential that each person’s discourse reflecting his or her own nature, obsessions and karma should affect the listener directly through its accentuated relief. It should be possible to capture the messages of the heart […] and the atmosphere of feelings by the simplest of means, by submitting to one’s artis-tic instincts and by strictly transcribing the intonational patterns of human speech.

The principles enunciated in this, Mussorgsky’s musical manifesto, find eloquent expression in the troubadour’s nostalgic lament in “II vecchio castello” (no. 2), in the mischievous taunts of children playing in the Tuileries gardens (no. 3), in the cackling chatter of old women in the marketplace at Limoges (no. 7), in the strident scream of the witch Baba-Yaga, with its major sevenths and tritones (no. 9), and in “Samuel” Goldenberg’s augmented seconds, which are transmuted into “Schmuyle’s” motif: according to the American musicologist Richard Taruskin, this last-named episode (no. 6) deals not with the grotesque antithesis between a rich Jew and a poor Jew but with contrastive states of mind in one and the selfsame person. By respecting Mussorgsky’s performance marking, “con dolore”, Ivo Pogorelich offers a deeply affecting reading of this piece, effectively putting an end to the decades-old tradition of treating it as a caricature.

With their sense of disenchantment and obsession with death, Mussorgsky’s works draw deeply on the sensibility of Symbolism and, as such, attain a far more modern resonance than anything Wagner wrote. His haunted houses and array of ghosts have been used in countless scores for musical comedies and contemporary horror films. More particularly, Pictures at an Exhibition has given rise to numerous orchestral versions and to popular adaptations.

Mussorgsky’s concern for psychological truth not only opened the way to Janáček, Debussy, Schoenberg, Ravel, Berg and Weill, it also led in his own works to daring experimentation on an architectonic level. Bars of 5/4 and 6/4 alternate in the folk-inspired pentatonic theme of “Promenade”, for example, a theme whose poetic colours are reflected by the piano’s various registers, notably in the hallucinatory “Con mortuis in lingua mortua” (no. 8), breathing a very real sense of life into a structure that would normally be doomed to failure: the disjointed hesitations of the gnome (no. 1) and the hypnotic slowness of the scenes nos. 2 and 4 ought, logically, to disrupt the musical argument. But psychological realism prevails. Do we not stroll, after all, through on exhibition, staring at length at scenes which, from the outset, have stirred our sensibilities, before being swept along by a sense of heightened emotion?

“No one has given utterance to all that is best within us in tones more gentle or pro¬found: he is unique, and will remain so, because his art is spontaneous and free from arid formulas. […] It is like the art of on enquiring savage discovering music step by step through his emotions.” These words were spoken by Debussy about Mussorgsky, but they could equally well have been written by Ravel, a musician who remained attached throughout his life to the works of the most modern composer of the second half of the 19th century. Apart from his famous orchestration of Pictures at on Exhibition, Ravel also helped to prepare a new version of Khovanshchina in collaboration with Stravinsky; his L’Enfant et les sortileges was inspired by the Russian composer’s The Nursery, and he himself described The Marriage (written shortly before Boris Godunov) as “the immediate forerunner of L’Heure espagnole“.

Valses nobles et sentimentales is Ravel’s homage to Schubert and to the Vienna of 1911, then at the height of its artistic glory. Contemporary with Granados’s Goyescas, Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier and Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces and Harmonielehre, it bears, by way of an inscription, a line from a poem by Henri de Régnier – “The delightful and ever-new pleasure of a useless occupation” – that seems to be a nod in the direction of Marcel Proust. Ravel later orchestrated the work, providing it with a choreographed plot and, under the title Adélaïde ou le Langage des fleurs, entrusted its first performance to the ballerina Natalia Trouhanova and the choreographer Ivan Clustine. The listener familiar with Ivo Pogorelich’s success in an earlier coupling of Ravel and Prokofiev (DG 413 363-2) will be no less impressed by the present recording of Mussorgsky’s pianistic masterpiece in a reading whose passionate conviction conveys the full force of the composer’s fierce modernity, while leaving to Ravel the task of weaving subtle correspondences.

© Pierre Jasmin / Deutsche Grammophon