I’ve long held a fascination with what I term death works—bursts of art born of some thanatos-based concern, be it an artist fronted with his own mortality or, in the case of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, the demise of a friend.
That friend was the painter Viktor Hartmann, felled by an aneurysm in 1873 at 39. A subsequent exhibition of Hartmann’s canvases in late winter of the next year did for Mussorgsky what the best of such things can do: It provided balm in the form of 400 lively works and musical inspiration. Six weeks later, Mussorgsky had composed one of our most-loved suites, and one of classical music’s foremost pianistic challenges, that rare sonic undertaking in which the musician is tasked with making paintings hearable.
Mussorgsky’s lot was to compose with celerity and then have his works suffer through difficult publication processes. Pictures wouldn’t be published until five years after Mussorgsky’s 1881 death, when his tireless friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov put out an edition. Most casual listeners know the various orchestrated versions, for Mussorgsky was always someone whose piano parts were so detailed and lush as to suggest symphonic settings, as if a multitude of instruments were housed under that sounding board, awaiting their chance to be heard.
If you are someone who wiles away portions of life in museums and counts those portions as very well spent, you will connect with Pictures as daubs of color bind to canvas. There is a promenade to move us from one painting, as it were, to the next, and one inspired coloristic choice after another to give the ear some sense of what, in an imaginative fashion, we are looking at.
This is all about invocation and depth of field, which is why Paul Lewis—whose touch at the keyboard can be as felicitous as Fragonard’s courtly romance scenes and as powerful as Winslow Homer’s rugged earth hues—is ideal for the solo approach to Pictures. The best pianists work with a precision befitting the surgeon or pugilist, and while people don’t do this nearly as much now as decades ago, there was a time when you could argue who were the best pianists in the world with the same vigor that men in bars would quarrel over Rocky Marciano and Joe Louis.
Lewis is an obvious heavyweight, perhaps the top pianist going, with a light touch. (The rendition of Schumann’s Fantasie, Op. 17, offered as an in-studio encore, doubles as an apt primer in its blend of sweetness and power.) His promenade tends to be sun-dappled, as though we’re passing through museum corridors flanked by windows. But the windows give way to back passages, where we find the likes of “The Old Castle,” shaded with twilight notes, a swirl of mottled purples and grays kitted out with streaks of black.
This isn’t, however, the aural depiction of a structure such as one might encounter in a Montague Summers tome, where the hobgoblins hold sway, but rather a post from which we will take our leave, as evanescent three- and four-note bouquets of sound are pushed along by fingers of wind in Lewis’s understated trills.
“Tuileries,” based on a floral study that featured (for the painting was lost) packs of children and overseeing nurses, is full of open, ringing notes, such that one can practically see Lewis’s hand hanging over the keyboard, his wrist having just made like a ball bearing to produce ripples of vibrato. “The Market at Limoges” is similarly flooded with life and light, and the prevailing sense of bustle is due to a sashaying, scurrying quality to the movement, notes making like shoes flying underfoot, one motif hip-checking another out of the way, an aural representation of cash pushed forward, a good buy secured.
Odd, then, that the rapid-fire coda, which moves at a very jazzy, almost Art Tatum-like pace, finds us slipping off into the two-part “Catacombs.” But this is part of the structural, reflective brilliance of the suite: For in museums as well as in life, juxtaposition works as well as curators—or ourselves, as curators of our own lives—allow it to.
This, at first, is one clanging charnel house. Lewis makes echoes boom, and certain effects resemble keys rattling in a lock, as we gain ingress. The busy sounds of the market, and what we initially encounter in the tomb, peter out into stillness before the promenade resumes, this time in block chords that seem to say, “Time to move again, tarry not too long here.”