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 Post subject: Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition
PostPosted: Wed Jun 19, 2013 12:40 am 
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Hi all,

One of my old warhorses from my college days. Mussorgsky's Pictures is the first of a three-work project of expressionist "character pieces." It's a fairly well-known piece so I won't bore you with an intro other than to say that it is in my biased and humble opinion one of the greatest pieces ever written :P

A note on the performance: Some have worked on reorchestrating the piece in the past (namely Horowitz), which is arguably appropriate in places given that the piece was written more with orchestral effects, rather than pianism, in mind. However, loving the rawness of it, I stuck completely to the original with the exception of an octave doubling to sustain the bass in Goldenberg as well as a couple of places in "Hut" and "Gate": (1) in Hut, in the segue back to the reprise of the first theme, Mussorgsky had penned a slightly different version that he later rejected - I prefer his original version which is listed as an alternative passage in the Dover edition; (2) in Gate, in the passage with the treble octaves, Mussorgsky had also written an earlier passage with greater melodic interest in the bell-like effect in the right hand - I prefer and play this original version; (3) the original of the coda of Gate is a bit anticlimactic in the original, so I play a version similar to Horowitz's, which retains the original chords, but adds some extra orchestration.

Thanks for listening.

Joe


P.S. I looked at the post on appropriate tags again, since it's been a while, so hopefully these are right. If not, just yell at me and I'll fix them. :P

Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition - I, Promenade - Gnomus (3:58)
Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition - II, Promenade - Il Vecchio Castello (4:53)
Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition - III, Promenade - Tuileries (1:25)
Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition - IV, Bydlo (3:35)
Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition - V, Promenade - Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks in Their Shells (1:55)
Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition - VI, Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle (2:24)
Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition - VII, Promenade - Limoges, the Market - Catacombae Romanae - Cum Mortuis in Lingua Mortua (7:12)
Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition - VIII, The Hut on Fowl's Legs - The Great Gate of Kiev (8:05)

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 Post subject: Re: Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition
PostPosted: Wed Jun 19, 2013 1:23 pm 
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I've listened to these somewhat casually (I know the score very well) and hardly anything struck me as worth criticizing. It's a powerful, solid and convincing performance and I don't feel the need to follow with score to hunt for whatever tiny flaws there might be. One might want to do some things differently, but that is personal choice. Overall I think you are nailing the pictures neatly to the wall :)

One little thing then - you could be a bit more flexible in places, and take your time a bit more. Some parts sound a bit rigid. Which is not to say this music should be swathed in rubato, but a little more freedom could do no harm. I don't care for the Horowitzian 'improvements' to the coda, I think they are garish and destroy Moussorgsky's powerful simplicity. Just my opinion of course. I also did not like some of your gestures in Bydlo. The repeated notes in Schuyle and Goldenberg sound very neat at this slow tempo. I find this a nightmare to play, due to a lack of repeat technique (and a piano that could handle it). The slower tempo is a good solution, better have them slowly than messed up.

All in all, great work. The tagging and naming are spot-on too :) I will try to put these on the site tonight.

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 Post subject: Re: Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition
PostPosted: Wed Jun 19, 2013 9:57 pm 
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These are on the site. I had to fix my html generator to accommodate for the very long titles here :)

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 Post subject: Re: Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition
PostPosted: Wed Jun 19, 2013 11:06 pm 
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Congratulations, Joe.
I do not know why the Unhatched Chicks is so funny, but you do things in here that really bring it to life. And actually, I would not want to analyze it. It does not sound like any other recording of this piece that I've heard, and I could listen to this movement repeatedly (and have already).
The rest is very good, too.

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 Post subject: Re: Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition
PostPosted: Wed Jun 19, 2013 11:09 pm 
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Very impressive. I've thoroughly enjoyed listening.


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 Post subject: Re: Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition
PostPosted: Thu Jun 20, 2013 4:04 am 
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Quote:
These are on the site. I had to fix my html generator to accommodate for the very long titles here


Thanks very much, Chris. And excellent points as always (I wasn't particularly satisfied with Bydlo myself).

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 Post subject: Re: Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition
PostPosted: Thu Jun 20, 2013 4:12 am 
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Quote:
Congratulations, Joe.
I do not know why the Unhatched Chicks is so funny, but you do things in here that really bring it to life. And actually, I would not want to analyze it. It does not sound like any other recording of this piece that I've heard, and I could listen to this movement repeatedly (and have already).
The rest is very good, too.


Thanks, Stu. Indeed, the Chicks is a very humorous piece. One funny thing I didn't realize until recently is that the sforzati that end each half represent one of the chicks breaking out its shell.

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 Post subject: Re: Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition
PostPosted: Thu Jun 20, 2013 4:14 am 
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Quote:
Very impressive. I've thoroughly enjoyed listening.


Thanks very much for listening, Andrew. Glad you enjoyed.

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 Post subject: Re: Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition
PostPosted: Sat Jun 22, 2013 3:20 am 
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Congratulations on mastering so much material and creating this recording! This piece is a beast and I first of all want to salute the massive amount of effort and expertise that went into your recording of it.

Here are some thoughts as I listen.
1 (a). Promenade needs to have this super-steady walking tempo, of course, but I wonder what else might be available to create some variation in the sound? Dynamics, phrasing? It sounds a bit dull as is.
1 (b). Wow. This one just leaps right off the page. You've really got into the character of the Gnome! And you use so many different tone colors to great advantage.
2. This Promenade is very nicely phrased compared to 1 and has a nice reflective quality. The Castle is appropriately mysterious. I personally prefer less of the pushing-ahead kind of rubato here -- I'd rather let the castle be strong and calm -- but that's a personal preference and I do think your choices work well.
3. Good Promenade here too, nice open and relaxed sound. The children quarrelling at play are quite endearing. I like the mischievious sound in the middle section.
4. I really like the effect of the sustained and unrelenting heaviness. It's perfect for the piece and it offers a shade of despair to the ever-turning wheels of the oxcart... (Bydlo is an oxcart right?)
5. A steadier tempo would have helped, not harmed, the humor you're bringing to this interpretation. It's just a little bit hard to tell what is going on. That's not to say a pause here or there would be bad, but maybe choose them more carefully.
6. Really, really great characterization, especially the mournful side of Schmuyle.
7 (a). Now this is a good Promenade with very similar notes to 1 if I remember correctly. This kind of sound would have been great in the first Promenade as well. Maybe you just weren't quite warmed up then :)
7 (b). The Market is a bit overwhelming, which is probably your point, but I wonder if maybe you could have done more with the various sounds seeming to come from different directions or from different characters or at different distances? Anyway, it's quite well-done as is.
7 (c). I know how hard it is to bring off the connections between those long and infrequent notes and I am very impressed with your continuity of line.
7 (d). The line is good and the reinterpreted Promenade theme comes off nicely. The RH tremolo is a bit annoying. The sound is percussive and thin and it doesn't vary. I wonder if you'd get a better sound with more weight in the hand but less volume, if that makes any sense, and if you planned times for it to come out more over the LH and times for it to be subdued.
8 (a). I'm used to hearing a steadier tempo here, but I rather like your unpredictable Baba Yaga, and I don't think the unsteadiness gets in the way this time, if anything it helps accomplish what you want :)
8 (b). Really great job sustaining the energy across the whole piece, which I know is the major challenge. The quieter hymnlike section could have done with a calmer and richer sound.

I notice from your bio that you studied with some remarkable people at university, which is when you learned this piece -- would you like to share any of the things you remember your teachers saying, or things you worked on a lot as you studied Pictures?


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 Post subject: Re: Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition
PostPosted: Sat Jun 22, 2013 5:55 am 
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hreichgott wrote:
The quieter hymnlike section could have done with a calmer and richer sound.

That was what I thought too but forgot to mention. I found these to sound rather loud and brisk here.

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 Post subject: Re: Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition
PostPosted: Sat Jun 22, 2013 7:02 pm 
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Bravo! I really enjoyed it. Thanks for posting. Congratulations. This is not a work I know very well (I always thought it hellishly difficult and never attempted it) so I cannot comment much on details. Just a few observations:

I think the initial Promenade sounds a bit dull simply because it is a bit too slow.

Though I liked the Bydlo I was surprised at what happened around 2.10. I cannot remember hearing anyone play that staccato so pronounced and also affecting the base. It is as if the cart jumped over a small obstacle without losing pace (as in a cartoon) - not necessarily bad, but certainly unexpected.

I really liked the chicks. It is usually played in extremely strict time but I think your conception is perfectly fine, and it is nice to see a personal touch here.

The Baba Yaga also is usually played relentlessly in strict time while you make a few puzzling rubatos. I think that takes something away from the adrenaline pump and am not sure what you gain instead.

The ending sounds a bit different from what I remember - I understand there are different version but am no expert here, and the ending is my least favourite part. Anyway, If you managed a piece like this I guess you are entitled to end it any way you like!

Joachim


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 Post subject: Re: Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition
PostPosted: Sat Jun 22, 2013 11:45 pm 
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Heather,

Thanks so much for your detailed listening/comments! You raise many good points. I hope you don't mind if I respond to a few of your observations in turn (also because it's a fairly lazy Saturday here :) ):

Quote:
(a). Promenade needs to have this super-steady walking tempo, of course, but I wonder what else might be available to create some variation in the sound? Dynamics, phrasing? It sounds a bit dull as is.


Good point. I would probably stand by my chosen tempo here, give or take a few ticks, but I agree I could have done more with the contrast between solo and tutti. I suppose one problem for the performer in this promenade is that Mussorgsky leaves hardly any dynamic indication except for the forte indication at the outset. This differs from the second promenade, which is relatively well marked despite its shorter duration.

Quote:
I personally prefer less of the pushing-ahead kind of rubato here -- I'd rather let the castle be strong and calm -- but that's a personal preference and I do think your choices work well.


Again, a perceptive observation. I think part of it is that my tempo might be slightly too fast. For what it's worth, one interesting thing I learned recently when reading an analysis of the pictures (Cambridge companion series) is that Mussorgsky actually didn't have the castle itself in mind so much but rather a troubadour-like singer outside the castle.

Quote:
I really like the effect of the sustained and unrelenting heaviness. It's perfect for the piece and it offers a shade of despair to the ever-turning wheels of the oxcart... (Bydlo is an oxcart right?)


Yes, Bydlo is about an ox-cart. I think "sustained and unrelenting" is a good way of describing the toil associated with the titular vehicle :P

Quote:
A steadier tempo would have helped, not harmed, the humor you're bringing to this interpretation. It's just a little bit hard to tell what is going on. That's not to say a pause here or there would be bad, but maybe choose them more carefully.


Agreed. In particular, at a fast tempo, it's difficult to skip up to the high treble. Plus I wanted to do an accelerando toward the end of each half (when the chicks break out of their shells), but it didn't come exactly how I wanted.

Quote:
7 (a). Now this is a good Promenade with very similar notes to 1 if I remember correctly. This kind of sound would have been great in the first Promenade as well. Maybe you just weren't quite warmed up then :)


That's probably true, and the promenades aren't difficult technically. Since I generally do around three takes of each piece, sometimes the opposite can be true, and I get more tired later in the game. :)

Quote:
7 (b). The Market is a bit overwhelming, which is probably your point, but I wonder if maybe you could have done more with the various sounds seeming to come from different directions or from different characters or at different distances? Anyway, it's quite well-done as is.


Yes, probably. Overall, this is the most difficult for me technically in the set by far, and I worked hard on it and was fairly satisfied with the result but agree that I could have done more with the sforzati, for example.

Quote:
7 (d). The line is good and the reinterpreted Promenade theme comes off nicely. The RH tremolo is a bit annoying. The sound is percussive and thin and it doesn't vary. I wonder if you'd get a better sound with more weight in the hand but less volume, if that makes any sense, and if you planned times for it to come out more over the LH and times for it to be subdued.


These are good ideas; I agree that the balance could have been better.

Quote:
8 (a). I'm used to hearing a steadier tempo here, but I rather like your unpredictable Baba Yaga, and I don't think the unsteadiness gets in the way this time, if anything it helps accomplish what you want :)


Yes. IMHO this piece is often played in too prissy and metronomic a manner. After all, it's inherently an unbalanced thing, a hut on fowl's legs. I wish I could see one of those -- at least when the witch isn't at home -- but I guess I'd have to travel to the forests of Russia for that :P

Quote:
8 (b). Really great job sustaining the energy across the whole piece, which I know is the major challenge. The quieter hymnlike section could have done with a calmer and richer sound.


Thanks. Regarding the hymnlike section, I just listened back and this is perhaps the one point I'm not sure I agree on, since it's marked senza expressione and IMO needs to be soft in relation to the outer fortissimos but still firm and clearly singing and audible. (Not sure I captured that, but that's what I was after anyway.)

Quote:
I notice from your bio that you studied with some remarkable people at university, which is when you learned this piece -- would you like to share any of the things you remember your teachers saying, or things you worked on a lot as you studied Pictures?


I actually learned the piece in high school and performed it as part of a recital to get my required art credit, but then also performed it several times in college (which is why I called it a war horse from my college days above). This was long before I was really ready to play -- or record -- it. There are of course many valuable details my teachers have contributed, both the one in high school and Madeleine Forte, but I'm sorry to say I don't really remember the specifics offhand (it's been so long and much of that type of influence becomes subliminal). Over the long term, I think what really helps with readiness to play music like this is, as the pianist John Browning said, "practicing double notes and more double notes" (thirds and sixths). And I wish I still had time to practice double notes more. Not that there is that much actual double-note technique in Pictures, but once one has achieved some mastery of scales, there's nothing better IMO for increasing, extension, flexibility, ability to orchestrate, etc. Sixths are IMO especially useful for Pictures.

Anyway, thanks again for your detailed listening!

Joe

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 Post subject: Re: Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition
PostPosted: Sat Jun 22, 2013 11:58 pm 
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Quote:
Bravo! I really enjoyed it. Thanks for posting. Congratulations. This is not a work I know very well (I always thought it hellishly difficult and never attempted it) so I cannot comment much on details. Just a few observations:


Thanks, Joachim!

Quote:
Though I liked the Bydlo I was surprised at what happened around 2.10. I cannot remember hearing anyone play that staccato so pronounced and also affecting the base. It is as if the cart jumped over a small obstacle without losing pace (as in a cartoon) - not necessarily bad, but certainly unexpected.


This is an idea I confess I picked up from listening to Horowitz's version many years back and that has stuck with me over the years. I suppose I would make my case for a bit of unevenness with the way the cart moves (rickety, going over a stone or other small obstacle, as you imply), though I admit it didn't come across the way I wanted in the recording.

Quote:
The ending sounds a bit different from what I remember - I understand there are different version but am no expert here, and the ending is my least favourite part. Anyway, If you managed a piece like this I guess you are entitled to end it any way you like!


The idea for the ending I also borrow from Horowitz's version. I can hear what Chris is saying about Mussorgsky's
"powerful simplicity" but I still think it sounds rather too spare and anticlimactic a conclusion for such a monumental work. I'd chalk it up to Mussorgsky's lack of understanding for writing for the piano despite his wonderful effects (even though he was by all accounts quite a good pianist himself). Just my opinion of course.

Joe

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 Post subject: Re: Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition
PostPosted: Tue Jun 25, 2013 4:34 am 
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Hi Joe,

Sorry it's taken me awhile to get to your Pictures. Tonight I did have some time, so went to "The Great Gate at Kiev", my favorite section. I believe you have a compelling performance there--a sense of drive, commanding articulation, sonorous chords and octaves, nice dynamic changes, and voicing of melodic chords. It certainly convinced me. I'm OK with your alterations too, finding them creative and interesting. Honestly, I think I still prefer the original score writing in those places, but I admit that it was refreshing to hear something new and different as well. Great playing!

P.S. Many years ago when I was in Musicology class, the professor asked the students (all music majors except me) to play something that showed the period's stylistic aspects in the music. When my turn came, I had prepared the second half of "The Great Gate at Kiev", what I like to call The Bells starting in your recording at 3.28 and I played through to the end. The professor first complimented me on my performance, but also felt compelled to announce that I had misplayed ONE note. (He was watching the score.) AY! Then I was miffed, but now looking back I take it in good humor.

David

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 Post subject: Re: Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition
PostPosted: Tue Jun 25, 2013 7:28 am 
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David,

Thanks for listening and for your compliments!

Quote:
The professor first complimented me on my performance, but also felt compelled to announce that I had misplayed ONE note. (He was watching the score.) AY! Then I was miffed, but now looking back I take it in good humor.


As they say, it's always something. :)

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