Inside the Music: Picture Perfect

Discover more about classical music with our new video series and interactive programme notes.

Music by kind permission of Naxos Records

A grand Russian finale to Colston Hall’s classical season

The Moscow Philharmonic bring music of their homeland to the stage, kicking off with Shostakovich’s blistering Festival Overture, and Rachmaninov’s magnificent, huge Third Piano Concerto, evoking the ancient chants of the Russian orthodox church. Written at the same time as his Symphony No. 2, the concerto is wildly romantic – and fiercely difficult. Mussorgsky ’s Pictures at an Exhibition is a highly coloured musical guide through ten pictures by one of the composer’s great friends, the artist Victor Hartmann. Originally written for the piano, French composer Ravel’s arrangement for orchestra is a rich, dramatic adventure.

10 things you didn’t know about… Shostakovich

  • Shostakovich was something of an obsessive, regularly synchronizing the clocks around his home and sending himself letters to test the efficiency of the postal service.
  • He loved football, supported Zenit Leningrad and was even a qualified referee. He wrote a ballet called ‘The Golden Age’ about a team that falls foul of a match rigging scandal.
  • The Russian composer wrote more than 35 film scores including those for The Gadfly and the science-fiction silent film Aelita: Queen of Mars for which Shostakovich also played the piano.
  • Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 ‘Leningrad’ was written in response to the terrible events of the city’s siege by the Nazis and their allies from 1941 until 1944.
  • But the symphony was actually premiered in Kuibyshev in 1942 and then in London, the score having been smuggled out of Russian on microfilm.
  • The same year, Shostakovich appeared dressed as a fireman on the cover of Time magazine – the composer had helped fight the flames on the roof of the Leningrad Conservatoire that had been lit by German incendiary bombs.
  • In the 1960s, Shostakovich became good friends with Benjamin Britten, who conducted his Symphony No. 14 in Aldeburgh.
  • In 1928, he wrote an opera called The Nose, about a St Petersburg official whose nose, having become detached from his face, starts leading a life of its own.
  • Stalin came to see Shostakovich’s 1930 opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, but left halfway through. The following day, an article in the Soviet newspaper Pravda accused the composer of writing ‘chaos instead of music’.
  • The composer’s 1926 Symphony No. 1 is actually his graduation piece, written at the age of just 19.

VIDEO: Oliver Condy  on Rachmaninov

VIDEO: Jonathan James on Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition

Listen out for… 5 key moments

  1. Shostakovich – Festival Overture

In the last two minutes, brass, woodwind and timpani combine for an explosive finish.

  1. Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No. 3, first movement

Rachmaninov possessed the largest hands of any pianist, and the first movement’s three-minute cadenza, at just over ten minutes in, is devastatingly difficult for any pianist. But it’s also incredibly beautiful.

  1. Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No. 3, final movement

In the final few minutes of the concerto, the piano and orchestra join together in one last celebration of the movement’s principal melody – the most glorious ending to any piano concerto. The work ends in a flurry of piano octaves, full orchestra and thundering percussion.

  1. Mussorgsky  – Pictures at an Exhibition, Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle

A Jewish-influenced melody begins the movement ‘Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle’, characters described as ‘Two Polish Jews, Rich and Poor’.  Listen for the mournful, high-pitched bleating on muted trumpets around 45 seconds in that represents the poor Jew.

  1. Mussorgsky  – Pictures at an Exhibition, The Great Gate of Kiev

The final painting in Mussorgsky ’s journey through the exhibition is a grand statement of the Promenade theme played by full orchestra – it’s a hymn to the great city that was once the capital of the Russian empire. At around two minutes into the movement, the orchestra mimics the tolling of the city’s great cathedral bells.

Painting with the piano

Mussorgsky originally wrote his 1874 Pictures at an Exhibition as a piano suite, in memory of his friend, the artist Viktor Hartmann, who had died not long after an exhibition of his paintings. It’s the composer’s only piano masterpiece, in fact, although the irony is that it’s perhaps better known in its arrangement by the French composer Maurice Ravel which you’ll hear performed in this concert. For his musical memorial, Mussorgsky  selected nine paintings by Hartmann, plus one given to him by the artist, to make up his musical display, each interspersed by a brief ‘Promenade’ as gallery visitors work their way from picture to picture. The paintings – and the music – are teeming with variety, with subjects ranging from children playing in Paris’s Tuileries Gardens and a market in Limoges, to a portrait of unhatched chicks (which were actually sketches of the set design for a ballet) and the mighty Great Gate of Kiev, Hartmann’s design for a new entrance into Russia’s former capital city. The music itself is abundantly descriptive and lends itself well to orchestration: Ravel uses heavy brass with dragging strings to paint the picture of cattle pulling a Polish cart on enormous wheels, while frantic oboe, muted trumpet and pizzicato strings conjure up a couple of French women quarrelling in a market. For the final picture, the Great Gate of Kiev, Mussorgsky takes the main Promenade theme and presents it as if it were a hymn, the solidness of the music reflecting the strength and power of the gates.

Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 was written at a time when music seemed to be getting ‘bigger’ – Mahler’s gargantuan symphonies were challenging orchestras both technically and in terms of sheer scale, and Russian composer Scriabin was calling for larger and larger ensembles for his ambitious orchestral works – it’s not uncommon to see a pipe organ and large bells in his scores. Rachmaninov’s response was to pit the might of the modern piano against a huge symphony orchestra, in a work that lasts up to 45 minutes. Intended to be performed at his American debut concert with New York Philharmonic (conducted by Mahler), the piece is strongly melodic, Rachmaninov using his opening, Russian Orthodox-influenced theme as a motif throughout the rest of the concerto. From the start, the pianist never lets up, the first movement cadenza an explosive, blurry mix of Romantic and Impressionistic writing. The second movement features deeply passionate writing reminiscent of his Second Piano Concerto, while the third movement begins as it means to go on, with music of great energy and vitality. At its heart lies one of the most sumptuous melodies in all Rachmaninov’s output.

The concert kicks off in style with Shostakovich’s effervescent, joyful Festival Overture, written in 1954 to commemorate the 37th anniversary of the October Revolution.

Further listening

Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No. 2

The Second is the concerto that made Rachmaninov’s name after an agonising period of writer’s block – and it’s still his most beloved. Brimful with melodies and rich textures, it’s a feast for the ears.

Recommended recording: Simon Trpceski (piano), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko (Avie AV2192)

Mussorgsky  – Songs and Dances of Death

A darker side to the Russian composer – four remarkable, intense depictions of death for bass voice and piano written in the mid-1870s, to poems by Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov.

Recommended recording: Dmitri Hvorostovsky (baritone), Ivari Ilja (piano) (Ondine ODE12162)

Words by Oliver Condy