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For composers, the death of a close friend or family member tends to have one of two effects: they either retreat into their own world, devoid of inspiration and unable to compose, or this life experience results in a creative surge forwards. In the case of Mussorgsky, the latter was true.
The Russian composer was good friends with a painter called Vladimir Hartmann. Tragically, Hartmann died at the peak of his career, aged just thirty-nine, and the loss of not just a close friend but an artistic inspiration had a deep effect on Mussorgsky. By way of a tribute to Hartmann, he decided to compose his set of piano pieces Pictures at an Exhibition, inspired by an exhibition of the artist’s work, which Mussorgsky had visited after his friend’s death.
Nowadays, however, Pictures at an Exhibition is most often heard not in its original piano version but in orchestrated form. Many musicians, from Henry Wood to Leopold Stokowski, have arranged the work for full orchestra, but it’s far and away the 1922 version by Maurice Ravel that receives the most regular performance and praise today.
(orch. Rimsky-Korsakov) Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; Valery Gergiev (conductor). Classic FM: CFM FW 060.
Illustration: Mark Millington