Pictures at an Exhibition - An Introduction
Mussorgsky formed part of The Great Five nationalistic Russian composers of the late nineteenth century. Not known to have been an accomplished musician, nevertheless he was a proficient pianist, which is a possible explanation for the complexity of his compositions. Another plausible explanation for his complexity is his instable psychological status as well as his frequent bouts of alcoholism.
Russia, and most of Europe, was gripped by a nationalistic fervour that was ably translated by the composers of that time with classic examples being Sibelius, Dvorak and Rimsky-Korsakov. Pictures At An Exhibition was conceived in 1874 following an exhibition of paintings by Mussorgsky's painter friend Victor Hartmann who had died a year earlier. Originally the piece of music was written for solo piano, but as has happened with most of Mussorgsky's works which were mainly unfinished at his time of death, the piece was amended and orchestrated with one of the most notable versions being that of Ravel who did so at the request of Serge Koussevitzky.
The main concept for this lovely piece of music was as an accompaniment to the actual exhibition which had various paintings by Hartmann connected by various promenades finishing off at the translation into music of the architectural design of a great gateway into music (The Great Gate Of Kiev). With that brief introduction one can possibly appreciate in greater detail the intricacies of the work of Mussorgsky. Of further note, one should also look for a diagram of the Pictures this musical piece refers to (all easily found on the net!) to allow this marvellous classical masterpiece come to life.
Introduction by Nigel Camilleri
T-Tauri - Mussorgsky's Pictures At An Exhibition
T-Tauri are a relatively new progressive rock band that hail from Eindhoven, The Netherlands. Their only album [a live recording was also available through MP3.com but because of the low recording quality that one has been pulled by the band - Ed.] involves a translation and adaptation of Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures At An Exhibition, which was done on request by Marcel Lebesque to be performed for the Evoluon that he organised in Eindhoven. The band are led by classically trained violinist Mellie Oudejans who in turn is aided by Matthieu Cleijne (Bass, Vocals), Bart Brouwer (Keyboards, Vocals), Bart Beks (Guitars), Gerard Vos (Drums) and Rob Haertel (additional drums). [Since the recording of this album Janneke van Heeswijk has taken over the drum stool, while Hans Raaymakers has been added on percussion - Ed.]. Together this sextet have created a version of Pictures At An Exhibition that manages to retain much of its classical element, mainly due to the violin playing, and at the same time infuse just the right dose of modern pock elements.
The first of five Promenades opens this work of art and sets the theme for the whole of the composition.
Immediately one gets a feeling of people walking through a hall to reach the first painting while at the same time
the underlying theme that rears its head throughout the whole of the composition makes it's first appearance here. Of
interest is that the trumpet solo is replaced by the guitar and violin, though the essence of the brass choir is
maintained by T-Tauri with the use of tubular bells.
'The Gnome' (Gnomus) was a painting that had a nutcracker designed in the form of a scowling gnome which has the music dived into different segments. The first part has the gnome scurrying and darting around to then progressively melt into the shadows and only make the occasional appearance, or dart for the next shadow. Thus the music alters from the fast more powerful notes that involve the band as a whole when the gnome is heard scurrying while, the hiding away in the shadows is somewhat more dramatic and tends to involve just the keyboards and violin.
Promenade II is the closest the band come to playing an almost hard rock version of the classical piece and is
a variation on a theme of Promenade I, involving a sublime guitar solo.
Vecchio Castello (Old Castle) depicted an old Italian castle from the Middle Ages which however had an aura of abandonment to it as the stone walls are eroding and the tapestries are fading. Thus the music is dramatic and lonely, seemingly a lament coming from the minstrel also depicted in front of the castle. The music starts slowly with the violin and guitar duet that is extremely moving, though this progressively become uplifting and involves more of the band (possibly as the minstrel reminisces the better days the castle has witnessed) to then fall back into the lament as the minstrel returns to the harsh reality of the day. The concluding part of this piece has the band joining in as the musical themes of past and present are intertwined around each other.
Promenade III is another short passage linking various rooms of the exhibition and once again features a
recurrence of the introductory theme, though the theme, played by the violin, is relegated to the background with the
rhythm brought to the foreground.
The sound of children playing and quarrelling brings us to the Tuileries gardens in Paris. The music is light to indicate the playfulness of the children though this occasionally breaks out into a more dramatic, and heavier style, when a quarrel breaks out. Listen out for the short section towards the end that has the theme taken from The Swan from The Carnival Of Animals by Sant-Saens.
Bydlo, depicts a Polish ox-cart and in contrast to Tuileries, has a heavy-set tempo and the track conveys a sense of the cart passing in front of the listener with the sound getting progressively louder to then fade away as the cart moves off into the distance. The surprising part about this piece is that one would expect the music to be laborious, a reflection of the strain that the cart places on the ox. Instead, what one gets is a celebration of strength with the music being getting stronger, and louder (the passage is marked as a fortissimo) without a hint of stuttering.
Promenade IV has a more airy and free feel attributed to the main theme, a part that is played by the bass
guitar, with the listener/viewer seemingly lost in thought whilst looking at the marvels of this exhibition.
The Ballet Of The Chicks In Their Shell was a scene that Hartmann had depicted for a ballet and as can be imagined the music is bouncy as the birds prance all over the place. The chirping of the chick is emphasised by the violin glissando ending in a tremolo. This is a stark contrast to the following number, Two Polish Jews, a track also known as 'Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle', the names of the two Jews in question. The two men are complete opposites with Goldenberd being a wealthy aristocrat and Schmuyle a beggar. The two meet up and strike up a conversation. Musically there is a strong Middle Eastern flavour and the two converse (or argue) after introducing each other. Goldenberg's music is grave and pompous, full of dignity and pride while on the other hand Schmyule ditters away, a part played by the trumpet in the orchestrated version. The T-tauri version seems to suffer somewhat when compared to the classical versions from a lack of stark contrast and the two individual characteristics seem to be lost, except for the initial segment.
The fifth and final Promenade leads us to Limoges (The Market Place) which has a scene of French
women quarreling in this central French city. The hustle and bustle atmosphere is marked by a flurry of notes as the
music features a series of quavers to signify the frantic atmosphere at the market. On the other hand,
Catacombae features a series of chord progressions, an effect that is carried out by the guitar power chords,
the brass section would play this in the orchestrated version. To add to the eerie atmosphere Oudejans adds her
operatic vocals that seem to flow through the catacombs.
Cum Mortuis in Lingua Mortua (With The Dead In A Dead Language) seems to be set within a similar setting as the catacombs and could easily have been another Promenade. In fact it is a reflective piece of music and shows Mussorgsky meditating on death, especially after seeing the darkness of the catacombs and being reminded of the untimely death of Hartmann. Musically the theme of the Promenades is ever present in this piece, but it is drawn out in a form of lament.
Baba Yaga is a witch from Russian folklore who lives in a Hut On Chicken's Legs. The tracks opens with the screams of the witch followed by her ride into the night searching for potential victims whose bones she grinds. The music has a brief pause where the music seems to come to a slowdown as the witch contemplates the fate of her victims, however after a series of chromatic descents the witch resumes her pursuit into the night to lead straight into The Great Gate Of Kiev. This was the design that Hartmann had made for an entrance gate to Kiev in honour of the Tsar Alexander II, a feat which was never accomplished. The majestic closing theme is in itself a lengthy piece of music which is unusual for such classical pieces, and features the bombasticity and grandiosity that such a regal gate could possibly have attributed to it in musical terms with bells tolling, a happy underlying theme and most importantly, the involvement of all instruments towards the end part which has a continuous crescendo and dramatic punctuation.
The early seventies saw ELP introduce Mussorgsky to the progressive rock audience. It seems that this task has been entrusted to T-Tauri for the twenty first century! A commendable work and one that should please both the classical as well as the rock aficionado.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10.
I was introduced to the work of T-Tauri at their performance in Helmond as support act for Porcupine Tree and have to admit to being very impressed. In fact, I enjoyed their set more than the main act. The band has a a tremendous stage presence heightened through Mellie Oudejans central role as violin virtuoso and also by an exceptional percussionist, Hans Raaymakers, who seemed continually busy with his assorted instruments. There was lots of firework that night.
Mussorgsky's piece doesn't lend itself for a similar explosive burst, but that's hardly anything to pout about, as T-Tauri's interpretation of Pictures at an Exhibition is brought with the conviction and style they showed on stage. Not so much a thoroughly modern reworking, but rather combining classical qualities with modern instrumentation. No one but the most conservative classicist will be offended by this reworking. Not only has T-Tauri succeeded in capturing the spirit of Mussorgsky's composition and Ravel's orchestration, but they've retained in each vignette the atmosphere as inferred by Hartmann's drawings.
Unfortunately I could find neither the piano suite or a symphonic rendition in the old vinyl collection (lots of orchestration's of Mussorgsky's St. John's Night on the Bare Mountain though) and like many I've never heard Emerson, Lake and Palmer's live rendition, nor Mekong Delta's '97 progressive rock version. So I'm working a little blindfolded here, basing comparison on memory.
The band makes an early mark with electric guitar and keyboards, while violin takes centre stage as brass choir and trumpet solo are replaced in Promenade I. The floating melodies aptly convey the transitional character of the Promenade. In Gnomus the scurrying figure of the gnome seems portrayed by bass. Coincedentally, there have been remarks on Ravel's progressive orchestration for this vignette, where he used xylophone, ratchet and whip. The whispers, blowing wind-effects and atmosphere of T-Tauri point momentarily more to Pink Floyd's Careful with that Ax, Eugene. Both these tracks feature usage of tubular bells. In Promenade II, the most "standard" rock piece on the album, this link is strenghtened, primarily though Bart Beks's fine guitar solo. Here electric guitar and drums replace Ravel's horns and woodwinds with keys and bass in supporting roles.
Ever since hearing T-Tauri's rendition of Vecchio Catello, the troubadour's mournful song, for the first time, it's brought to bear thinking in comparative thought towards Ennio Morricone. Not only through the early typical use of guitar, but in its whole melody, though only up to the point where the band breaks in with a personal interpretation with Gilmouresque guitar, before returning to the mournful violin's sound. The two themes combine for a splendid finale. My favourite of the 16 tracks.
Promenade III sees an up-tempo reworking of the familiar theme with keys and drums. In Tuileries (Children Quarreling After Play) the sounds of the quarreling children are overlaid with violin strokes, while the band fully explores its options in weaving differing musical tapestries through diverging use of instruments and focus. No baritone tuba solo in Bydlo, but violin over the heavy bass strings depicting the approach of the oxcart. In the centre piece harpsichord (or its synthesized version) is followed by a solo that again cannot but be regarded as David Gilour-inspired, before the third section sees return of the earlier instrumental structure with the passage of the oxcar.
After the short, heavyclad rendition of the central theme in Promenade IV, T-Tauri follows through with frantic violin activity opening the Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells, which silly scherzo-theme is beatifully rendered on piano, with violin portraying the chicks. Goldenberg and Schmuyle, the wealthy Jew and the beggar in Two Polish Jews are as faithfully depicted as in Ravel's orchestration: Goldenberg's music pompous and the beggar presented through delicate violin. Their encounter erupts in a rock anthem, that might well be drawn from the ELP version. (It has their mark, but I can't be sure, not having heard ELP's live performance.) Another stroll through the Promenade before in Limoges we are greeted by the busy sounds of the market in this French city, which soon bursts into the dark and mysterious Catacombae in which keys and guitar build progressively to a crescendo, interwoven with chants as an unnerving sensation pervades throughout. Con Motuis in Lingua Mortua sees the Promenade's melody transformed into an eerie theme at which it is strenghtened by the keyboards, before melody ensues with some echoeing Spanish guitar.
Baba Yaga proves a bit of symphonic rock - Savatage style - which brings to the fore the witch as she grinds the bones to feed her captives. This breaths the spirit of Slavic folklore in use of violin, although keyboards retain the modern aspect. The violin crescendo suggests frantic movement before a return to the symphonic rock anthem and a bursting intro of The Great Gate of Kiev which portrays the splendour of Hartmann's envisioned great gate honouring the Czar Alexander II. The hymn is interrupted by ecclesiastical musings, chants and even the chirping of birds. Bass turns almost jazzy at one instance, whilst tubular bells help build up a grand finale. T-Tauri shows great endeavour in maintaining flow and structure through all this.
In conclusion, this rendition of Mussorgsky's composition (or rather Ravel's orchestration) stands out for its structural integrity and the good performances of the players. Pictures at an Exhibition also shows its remarkably good production with a fine level of sound quality. Now that the band has its first recording out and is performing live in Holland, let's hope for a second release with original material soon.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.
Who was this band ? Where did they come from ? Why hadn't I heard of them before ? Before leaving the venue I had a quick chat with keyboard player Bart, told him about DPRP and after a short correspondence by e-mail I received several copies of their first album, a rendition of Pictures at an Exhibition. Now, that brought back memories ! I'm probably not the only person who had a lesson on Mussorgsky's masterpiece in high school. Fortunately, our music teacher was a rather free thinking person and he also introduced us to the versions of ELP and Tomita in class. Although I never ended up buying a version of the composition, the theme from Pavane has stuck in my mind since.
I'm not going to discuss all the themes, concepts and tracks on the album; I think both Nigel and Mark did an excellent job at that already. Let me just say that I'm highly impressed by T-Tauri's first release. Overall, the production is very good, although there are one or two tracks in which the drums sound a bit flat and dry. Highlights are the various versions of Promenade, Vecchio Castello (a prog rocker's wet dream), Baby Yaga and the bombastic (oops, I said the B-word) The Great Gate of Kiev.
Although T-Tauri's first album is extremely impressive, I have to admit that I was slightly
disappointed. Not that the band doesn't do a great job on this album, just because they also played
a lot of other songs at their concert which were great as well and a lot more accessible than
Mussorgsky's work. After all, Pictures at an Exhibition is not a CD you put on as a
casual listening or as background music. You really have to sit down for it, and that of course
asks a lot of the concentration from the listener.
Also, I sometimes have the feeling that the role of the violin is a bit too prominent in the music. Not that Mellie isn't doing an outstanding job, I just think - no make that 'I'm sure' because I have seen them do it - that the others can be very impressive as well when they take the leading role.
Finally, there's the fact that I'm not as enthusiastic about every composition which Mussorgsky wrote for Pictures at an Exhibition. For instance, the violin opening of Ballet of the Chicks In their Shell still gets on my nerves, as it did 15 years ago. Limoges doesn't do much for me either. I just cannot stand overtly happy violin ditties (I always hated Vivaldi'd Spring). Other bits, like the first half of Bydlo and parts of Catacombae are a bit tough on the ears as well. Mellie's doing a fine job, but I've never been a big fan of opera myself.
Still, as a whole I'm very impressed with T-Tauri's performance on this album, and I was delighted to hear that they are working on a record deal for the next album, which will feature some of the other material they played live. In the meantime, Pictures at an Exhibition is a must-have for all prog rock lovers who don't shun a healthy dosis of classical music and are not turned off by the violin !
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.