Mussorgsky’s “Pictures At An Exhibition” — Plus More Pictures

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Last Friday, at the damp tail end of a very wet week in New York, I made it over to Alice Tully Hall to catch a collaboration between the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and the Berlin-based, South African artist Robin Rhode. Rhode is best known for short films and videos that owe an (acknowledged) debt to the low-tech animations of his fellow South African artist William Kentridge, but with more of a street art flavor. A lot of his videos mix live figures with animated backgrounds, very often painted life-size on walls or on the ground. What he and Andsnes have produced together is something they call “Pictures Reframed”, a touring concert version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Andsnes performs on stage in front of a screen of animations and live action films that Rhode created to respond to the movements of Mussorgsky’s suite. Think of this as Pictures with more pictures.

During the performance there were actually five large screens arranged in a high semi-circle around the main screen, plus a projection on the floor beneath Andsnes and his piano, but only the central screen showed the Rhode videos. (The rest had projections of angular gray-and-white patterns.) It’s a safe bet that most people know Pictures from the Ravel arrangement for orchestra. (If not from the old Emerson, Lake and Palmer rock version. You know who you are!) So it was a nice change to hear it played in the drier, intricate solo piano original, just as it’s a relief sometimes to hear Wagner’s huge Siegfried Idyll dialed back into Glenn Gould’s beautiful little small orchestra transcriptions. Pictures is a piece with good bones, the keyboard version invites you to listen deep into it and Andsnes delivered a lucid, beautifully articulated account.

Pictures also lends itself naturally to the idea of a visual accompaniment, because it’s the last word in program music, the kind that’s supposed to invoke pictures. Better still, it’s a piece about pictures, meant to invoke Mussorgsky’s experience in 1874 of walking around a gallery looking one-by-one at work by his artist friend Victor Hartmann, who had died the year before. For obvious reasons it’s a piece that appeals to artists. It’s no surprise that Kandinsky, who was preoccupied by correspondences between color and sound, designed costumes and stage sets for a dance performance of Pictures in 1928.

Mussorgsky’s music is divided into movements that correspond to individual works in the gallery, with the famous “Promenade” theme repeated at several points to represent the viewer moving from picture to picture. You could make films that literally illustrate the pictures, which have names like “The Gnome” and “The Old Castle”. Or you can do as Rhode has has done and make films that refer very obliquely to the various movements. So to represent the first version of the “Promenade” he introduces a live figure of a man on his back appearing to juggle a series of animated white cubes with his legs. The program notes — and for this performance, you really want those notes — tell us that to Rhode the figure represents “a youth on the path of self-discovery” and also refers to Mussorgsky’s famous drinking problem, neither of which I would have guessed.

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Promenade: Kadet (part 1), Robin Rhode, 2009/photo: EMI Classics

The tangential connection between the music and what was on screen became a bit of a problem, because it required you to focus on the images more intently, to try to puzzle out their meanings, which you did at the expense of the music. All the same, some of them had a sort of lyric charm. The most effective combination of image and music came during the passage known as “The Catacombs”, based on a painting by Hartmann of himself and a friend looking over the burial crypts below the streets of Paris. A good part of that movement consists of an alternation between lingering chords struck hard on the keyboard and rumbling finger work. Rhode’s imagery couldn’t be simpler — white paint splatters against a black background, a completely humble image that still suggests a starry sky, even after the guy who appears in the Promenades makes a few ghostly appearances among the “stars”. By that time I was also content to just let the images do their thing, without grasping for meanings, which left me more brain space to focus on the music.

Only one section was too literal minded, the one that Mussorgsky devotes to a clock that his friend Hartmann had made in the form of the hut of Baba Yaga, the witch from Russian folklore whose house stood on hen’s legs. If you didn’t read the program notes, I don’t know what you would have made of the footage of real chickens, running. But once you make the Baba Yaga connection, the chickens seem too obvious. That footage is intercut with shots of a printed fabric used by South African witch doctors that has the image of a chicken on it. The fabric was black, red and white, colors that Rhode, again in the program notes, connects by way of a Russian fable to “aspects of the spiritual world and its meaning in contemporary society”. As symbols go that seemed a bit of a stretch, though it was arguably no more unlikely than some of the connections Kandinsky tried to draw between music and images in his work.

Mussorgsky’s composition famously ends with the rousing movement called “The Great Gate of Kiev”, essentially a re-statement of the “Promenade” theme in grand terms. (You can just imagine what Emerson, Lake and Palmer did with that part.) For the film that accompanies it Rhode arranged to have a real concert piano inundated by rising flood waters. It’s an arresting image, but what it has to do with anything that came before is hard to say — it doesn’t appear to culminate the ideas of the previous episodes, even just the formal ideas. You can’t escape the feeling that Rhode knew he needed a finale to match the mighty crescendos of Mussorgky’s final movement — something big and literally splashy — and just went for it. What you know by the final chords of Pictures is that Mussorgsky has earned his grand ending. I’m not sure Rhode did more than arrive at it.

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