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A Darker Stroll through Mussorgsky's "Pictures"

Leopold Stokowski
From "Stokowski Conducts Bach" album, RCA
Leopold Stokowski

No conductor felt as free to change a composer’s score for the sake of visceral, sonic effect than Stokowski - explore it on WCRB's CD of the Week, as it is one of the many masterpieces that makes up Decca's 22-disc set.

Conductor Leopold Stokowski was more than ready to make changes to any composer's score – he said the aim was always to get closer to the emotional intention of the composer. For example, Bach’s music was ripened and enlarged to suit the kaleidoscopic possibilities of the 20th-century orchestra.

In the case of the piano piece Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky, Stokowski wasn’t alone. The music represents a stroll through a series of paintings and theater set designs by Viktor Hartmann, a painter and architect who died when he was just 39 years old. Mussorgsky had loved the man, and, in homage, poured himself into a virtuosic thriller that's now a staple of the piano repertoire. Many other composers heard the orchestral possibilities in it, too, but it's Ravel’s transcription that has become the most famously successful – a masterpiece of color and atmosphere.  

Stokowski introduced Philadelphia audiences to Ravel's orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition in 1929. But he was never altogether persuaded by the arrangement. It needed to be more Slavic, he thought, and ten years later, he finished his own version for orchestra, weeding out whatever French sensibilities he felt didn't belong.

The result makes a fascinating contrast to Ravel's stunning and perfectly calibrated adventure in orchestral possibilities. Stokowski unearths unexpected colors, aiming for a starker, darker experience. It's fun to compare the two, as you can below.

The new Decca box set offers the rich Stokowski sound with the Phase 4, multi-channel recording technique. Stokowski, always at the forefront of technology, understood the technique perfectly, and consulted on every detail throughout the process.

For comparison, here are video recordings of the two orchestrations of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition:

In Ravel's transcription, Gustavo Dudamel leads the Simón Bolívar Youth Symphony Orchestra:

And, José Serebrier, who once worked as Stokowski's assistant, conducts the Stokowski version with the National Youth Orchestra of Spain:

Watch a trailer for the collection:

For more information, a track listing, and to purchase this recording, visit ArkivMusic.