Mussorgsky and Rachmaninoff

Mussorgsky and Rachmaninoff

NF/PMA 9939

Mussorgsky. Pictures at an Exhibition
Rachmaninoff. Seven Preludes
Sergey Schepkin, piano

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Barcode: 4607053326765
Price: £9.99


Mussorgsky. Pictures at an Exhibition





Gnomus [The Gnome]






Il vecchio castello [The Old Castle]






Les Tuileries: Dispute d’enfants après jeux [The Tuileries Gardens: Children’s Quarrel after a Game]


Bydło [Oxen]






Ballet of Unhatched Chicks (Trilby)



Two Polish Jews: One Rich, the Other Poor (Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle)





Limoges. Le Marché (La grande nouvelle) [Limoges. The Marketplace (Great News)]


Catacombae: Sepulcrum Romanum [Catacombs: The Roman Burial Caves]


Con mortuis in lingua mortua (With the Dead in a Dead Language)


The Hut on Chicken’s Legs (Baba–Yaga)


The Great Gate of Kiev



Rachmaninoff. Seven Preludes


Prelude in C–sharp minor, Op. 3, No. 2 (1892)


Prelude in C minor, Op. 23, No. 7 (1903)


Prelude in G, Op. 32, No. 5 (1910)


Prelude in D minor, Op. 23, No. 3 (1903)


Prelude in G minor, Op. 23, No. 5 (1901)


Prelude in E-flat, Op. 23, No. 6 (1903)


Prelude in B-flat, Op. 23, No. 2 (1903)



Sergey Schepkin, piano

Recording and editing: Patrick Keating;  Producer: Sergey Schepkin;  Photography: Kathy Chapman, 2005;  Piano technician: Anthony McKenna;  Piano: Steinway;  Recording location: New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, Boston, MA, USA;  Recording dates: July 30, 2005 (Mussorgsky); January 13, 2002 (Rachmaninoff)

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition

Called by Sviatoslav Richter “the most profound Russian piano composition, ” this is undoubtedly one of the best–known 19th–century piano cycles, next to Schumann’s “Carnaval,” Chopin’s Twenty-Four Preludes, and Liszt’s “Années de Pèlerinage.” In the twentieth century, “Pictures” have achieved wide fame thanks to the orchestration by Maurice Ravel as well as appropriation by many virtuosi — including competition virtuosi. Unfortunately, in performance, the cycle’s philosophical essence is often jettisoned in favor of the decorative (“salade russe”) aspect as celebrated by Ravel’s orchestration. The work’s original text has also been mutilated by many pianists: dynamics are frequently altered, notes added, entire pages rewritten for the sake of a supposedly greater effect; the myth, according to which Mussorgsky was an inept amateur, albeit a genius, still persists.

In my opinion, Mussorgsky knew perfectly well what he was doing. His piano writing is, for the most part, superbly idiomatic (the few uncomfortable passages can be “fixed” by slightly altering the hands’ distribution without changing a single note). The architecture of the work is impeccable, as is the working–out of the details.

The work was intended as a memorial to the composer’s close friend, the painter and architect Victor Hartmann who had unexpectedly died in 1873; a retrospective of Hartmann’s works was given at the Academy of the Fine Arts in St. Petersburg in 1874, and the emergence of Mussorgky’s work is owed to that particular exhibit. Ultimately, however, the composer transcended the pictorial originals and created his own universe. The work is perhaps not so much about individual pictures as about the place of Russia in the world.

The Promenades play a double structural role in the cycle: they divide the work into smaller sub-cycles and unify the whole construction by the similarity of their thematic material based on trichordal motifs stemming from Russian folksongs. Their aesthetic function lies in providing the composer’s — the exhibition’s spectator’s — reaction to what he sees, as well as delineating the response of a Russian to the phenomena of “the world out there.” There are six Promenades in total: “Con mortuis in lingua mortua” is, in fact, the last Promenade, even though it is not defined as such; according to Mussorgsky’s own admission, it represents the composer’s spiritual communication with the soul of his deceased friend. To omit the second “big” Promenade (before “Limoges”) — which is Ravel’s procedure that is still emulated by some pianists – is to destroy the work by pulling out a pillar that is strategically placed at the cycle’s golden section point. The Promenades’ main theme finally reappears in the “bell” section of “The Heroic Gate,” spanning the entire cycle like a gigantic arch.

The “pictures’” imagery is mostly non–Russian — Hartmann traveled widely in Europe; “the Russian theme” appears only in the last two of them. The number of “pictures” equals ten, set in pairs. Each pair is arranged according to the principle of contrast that can be perceived in aesthetic and spiritual terms, and each new pair offers a higher level of philosophical perspective. The grotesque in “Gnomus” is contrasted by the ideal in “Il vecchio castello”; the urbane grace of “Tuileries” is followed by the drunken oblivion of the ox-cart driver’s song in “Bydło.” The shimmering fantasy world of the “Ballet of Unhatched Chicks” is given a stark contrast in “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle,” a terse and poignant essay on the human condition; the ebullient picture of life in “Limoges” is followed by the ghastly image of death in the “Catacombs.” Russia, in its elemental capacity, makes a tumultuous entry in “Baba-Yaga,” the latter being the proper name of the grande dame of witchcraft in Russian fairy tales. The demonic is, however, ultimately conquered by the sublime in “The Heroic Gate of Kiev” — the movement that shows Russia in all of its shining splendor and religious fervor.

“Pictures” is, in fact, Mussorgsky’s companion piece to “Boris Godunov” and a response to many questions posed in that opera. While the message of “Boris” was a negative one — Russia as a land of no hope — that of “Pictures” is quite the opposite. Mussorgsky’s faith in Russia is expressed here with unabashed enthusiasm. In the philosophical outlook of this work, Mussorgsky anticipated, by six years, the content of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s famous speech at the unveiling of the Pushkin monument in Moscow: the writer defined the essence of the Russian national character as openness to the entire world and willingness to embrace the best in it; according to Dostoyevsky, Pushkin did exactly that in his work. Mussorgsky’s Russia, as it appears in “Pictures”, not only embraces the whole world but also redeems it spiritually.

Program Notes by Sergey Schepkin

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