Pictures at an Exhibition: Musorgsky’s masterpiece & its best versions

Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition exists in two forms: the composer’s original version, for solo piano, and Ravel’s later orchestration. Here, we look at the genesis of the original piano piece – and some of its finest recordings.

What is Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition about?

Written in 1874, Pictures at an Exhibition is Musorgsky’s only piano masterpiece: a tribute to his deceased friend, the artist and architect Viktor Hartmann, after visiting a display of his work.

Ten musical ‘pictures’, suggested by Hartmann’s, are interspersed with ‘promenades’ leading from painting to painting. From children playing in the gardens of the Tuileries to a catacomb of skulls; from unhatched chicks to Russian folklore’s chief witch, Baba Yaga, all of life is here.

There are two performing traditions: one pays scrupulous attention to the text; the other freely ‘pianostrates’ it (Vladimir Horowitz’s term) with extra effects. What’s vital is that the pianist is true to Musorgsky’s spirit, steeped in Russian 19th-century Realism. That spirit makes Pictures a gift to an imaginative performer.

What is the best recording of Pictures at an Exhibition?

Sviatoslav Richter: The Sofia Recital (1958)

Phillips 464-7342

The recording of Sviatoslav Richter, live in recital in Sofia in 1958, is a legend, and with good reason. Sound quality is poor – rumbly, crackly, audience-laden – but there’s an overriding sense that we’re witnessing Richter manage that extreme rarity: the realising of an ideal.

This towering Russian pianist made it his mission to convey Musorgsky exactly as written, but to embody in his performance of the unadulterated score all the emotion and philosophical great-heartedness that others try to achieve through embellishment.

His interpretation offers what the filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon described as a ‘wild and intractable purity’. It’s some of the most extraordinary piano playing you could hope to hear. His ‘Catacombs’ magically transforms every chord into a great cave, seeming to achieve that supposed pianistic impossibility, a crescendo in mid-resonance.

Read more about the great Russian composers

‘Baba Yaga’ has a terrifying, pagan, monolithic power – contrast this with the delicacy of the unhatched chicks and the innocence of the Tuileries children. In the grand finale, the radiant carillon of Kiev and the evocation of Russian orthodox choirs behind cathedral screens are unforgettable. There’s a conceptual scale to Richter that goes beyond what most pianists can imagine.

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