Hailed as a “hero” (Los Angeles Times), a “smashing” performer (The Washington Post), “a pianist who breaks the mold” (International Piano) and “who stands out from the typical trends and artifices [...]
They spoke about it
Moussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition
Moussorgsky wrote his Pictures at an Exhibition after seeing a memorial exhibition of the work of his friend, the Russian architect Viktor Hartmann (1834-1873). The suite was completed in three weeks, during June and July of 1874, in the midst of a highly creative period, when the great popularity of his Boris Godunov had already propelled his career to a climax. Referring to the Pictures, the composer wrote to Vladimir Stasov (1824-1906), to whom the work is dedicated, “Hartmann is quite impetuous, much like Boris; sounds and ideas are suspended in mid-air, and after gorging myself on them, I can hardly write them down fast enough.” (June 1874)
Only five of the ten paintings by Hartmann which inspired Moussorgsky are still in existence: the drawing of a chickadee costume for the ballet Trilby (Ballet of the unhatched chickens); two Jews, one rich, one poor, (Samuel Goldenberg und Schmuyle); a watercolor depicting three men carrying a lamp in the catacombs of Paris (Catacombae. Sepulcrum romanum); the richly ornate sketch of a Russian-style clock mounted on fowl’s legs (The little hut on chicken’s legs); and, finally, his drawing for a monumental gate with bell tower, originally designed for the city of Kiev (The Great Gate of Kiev).
These musical miniatures have long been criticized for not being faithful enough to their visual sources of inspiration. Indeed, rather than a plain musical depiction of Hartmann’s designs, Moussorgsky created his own story lines. The original titles, carefully chosen by the composer, are set in six different languages: Russian, French, Italian, Polish, Latin and German. The suite comprises ten movements between which he has sporadically interspersed an interlude entitled Promenade. One will easily picture the husky silhouette of the composer-spectator, moving from one illustration to the next in a cumbersome manner.
Moussorgsky used one of his favorite techniques, that of variations, to transform the five presentations of the Promenade during the course of the various Pictures. The composer’s preferred sources of inspiration are brought together in this cycle: the constant presence of folk material, from the Promenade’s pentatonic melody to the bell-like harmonies in The Great Gate of Kiev, along with popular and countryside scenes, (Bydlo, Samuel Goldenberg und Schmuyle, Limoges. The market), the fantastic (Gnomus, The little hut on chichken’s legs), childhood (Tuileries, Ballet of the unhatched chicks), the ancient Russian style (The Great Gate of Kiev) and death (Catacombae). Shaped as it is by the work’s musical content, the suite’s free-flowing form establishes a coherence through its key progression, its well-balanced contrast between the miniatures’ individual characters as well as through its refrain-like Promenade. The work’s genre might recall Schumann’s Papillons and Carnaval and the writing of some Pictures is at times reminiscent of Liszt. In spite of such affinities with the nineteenth century’s European piano repertoire, the Pictures are still remote from the tradition of German Romanticism.
Filled with intense realism, they exude a deep love of tradition and life in the Russian countryside. Aside from A Night on the Bare Mountain, the Pictures at an Exhibition are the only major instrumental work in Moussorgsky’s entire repertoire. No public performances of the Pictures ever took place during the composer’s life. Ravel’s superb orchestral transcription eclipsed the original piano version well until the 1940’s, when the work, as originally conceived by Moussorgsky, began gaining popularity on its own merit.
Rachmaninov: Moments musicaux op. 16
The six Moments musicaux by Rachmaninov, like the Pictures at an Exhibition, is a piano cycle written by a Russian composer. But there are no extra-musical sources of inspiration at play here; they belong to a different period and style, illustrative of late Romanticism. Composed between October and December of 1896, the Moments musicaux were dedicated to Aleksandr Zatayevich (1869-1936), a friend of the composer. This third opus for solo piano, preceded by the five Morceaux de fantaisie op. 3 and the seven Morceaux de salon op. 10, constitutes a milestone in the evolution of Rachmaninov’s musical language. His writing reaches unprecedented virtuosity and embodies the expression of a more personal and intuitive style. Although each of the six Moments is a self-contained work, the cycle as a whole reveals a formal unity, established by a series of resembling melodic motifs running through a succession of alternately meditative and more strikingly virtuosic Moments. The cycle begins with an Andantino (No.1) set in a freely flowing rhythm, much in the style of an improvisation. A meditative and melancholic theme is repeated in various manners throughout the piece. In the Allegretto (No.2), a breathless chromatic melody emerges from the depths of a tumultuous accompaniment. The Andante cantabile (No.3) that follows proves striking in its restraint and dark lyricism. Then comes the Presto (No.4) and yet another outburst of virtuosity, against which a theme unfolds with great passion. In the Adagio sostenuto (No.5), steady and smooth triplets in the left hand provide a soothing release of the musical tension. With its theme harmonized in thirds, the Adagio is most reminiscent of the Andante cantabile (No.3).
The cycle reaches its climax with the brilliant and impetuous Maestoso (No.6), a highly demanding virtuosic episode requiring both strength and agility. Conceived while Rachmaninov was at a turning point in his life, the six Moments musicaux introduce a new creative cycle from which the Second Concerto was to emerge after a long silence.
© Marie-Noëlle Lavoie
Translation: Marc Hyland