I can’t remember when I discovered that Modest Mussorgsky’s masterpiece Pictures at an Exhibition was written as a suite for the piano. The recording in my family’s collection, the recording that was played with some regularity was the version recorded by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. It was the version famously orchestrated (although I didn’t learn this until later) by Maurice Ravel.
My youth may have been some excuse for my ignorance, but it is probably a good possibility that I was not alone in that ignorance. I would venture to guess there were a good many listeners who had never heard the work as anything but a suite for the entire orchestra whether in Ravel’s orchestration or one of the others—Stokowski’s for example. In many respects, it was the orchestral version that made the 1874 suite famous.
Now while there are those purists who may well object to such “tampering” with the original, there is something to be said for one artist’s re-imagining of another artist’s work. There is something to be said for artistic innovation that uses one great work as a springboard for the creation of something new, something that has enough reverence for that great work to try to honor it with a new creative act. Ravel and Stokowski have not been alone in taking a look at the Mussorgsky suite. Check out Emerson, Lake and Palmer on YouTube. Such innovative approaches may or may not work as well, but when they do, they may both invigorate the original work and produce a work of significance in its own right.
Classical Meets Jazz: Pictures at an Exhibition…, a concert piece, arranged and performed by Israeli jazz virtuoso Eyran Katsenelenbogen and Romanian classical pianist, Andrei Ivanovitch based on an idea from Gerhard Hummer is arguably an example of just such an innovation. Using the Mussorgsky suite as a foundation the two pianists improvise with wit and gusto, creating an energetic new look at the classic. Their collaboration had its world premiere in October of 2007 in Hamburg, Germany, and it has been performed a number of times in Europe. Its American premiere was hosted by the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, MA on May 24, 2009, and an exciting DVD recording of this premiere is now available.
The 13 movements of the suite are played in order, each movement giving the pianists an opportunity to explore Mussorgsky’s musical ideas and improvise upon them in different ways. There are echoes of jazz keyboard greats like Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum and Thelonious Monk.
There are also moments that remind the listener of George Gershwin and his use of jazz elements in works like the Concerto in F and the Rhapsody in Blue. There are even quotations from “Summertime” and Beethoven’s Fifth. But there is always the classical foundation to build upon, the “Promenade,” “The Great Gate of Kiev.”
Katsenelenbogen and Ivanovitch have created a unique blend of styles and ideas that is both truly worthy of its source and can stand alone on its own merits. It is a magical reworking that will find an audience with lovers of classical music and jazz enthusiasts as well.
For those of you who would like a taste of the work, check out the finale on YouTube.