Various Artist Compilations - Pictures At An Exhibition; Hary Janos Suite; Lieutenant Kije Suite
Of the three suites, the most well-known is undoubtedly Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky. Comprising fifteen separate movements it is based on the works of the artist and architect Viktor Hartmann, a close friend of Mussorgsky, whose premature death of an aneurysm in 1873 shocked the composer. He helped organise a post mortem exhibition of Hartmann's work, most of which is now sadly lost, and wrote this suite shortly after.
The dominant musical theme is the libretto which forms the basis of the pieces known as "Promenade". The movements of the suite are arranged in such a way as to delineate the listener/viewer walking through the exhibition, an arrangement heightened by the occasional change of pace of the pieces as if to mimic the act of walking. The suite culminates in the grand and somewhat bombastic "La Grande Porte de Kiev" which is a musical description of the Bogatyr Gate in that city, once more returning to the libretto which has dominated the earlier movements of the suite.
Zoltan Kodaly's Hary Janos Suite is in the format of a Hungarian folk opera - basically a play with songs, akin to modern day musicals - called Az Obsitos (The Veteran). The tale is of a pompous braggart soldier in the Austrian army boasting of his ludicrous exploits during his military service to gullible drunks and yokels in a country tavern. In spite of having Napoleon's empress fall in love with him, and single handedly defeating the French Emperor in battle, Hary eventually returns home to his childhood sweetheart. One of the features of the music is the appearance of a peculiar stringed instrument in the composition. According to the sleeve notes, it is a cimbalom - a kind of Hungarian dulcimer.
The final suite is Soviet-era composer Sergei Prokofieff's Lieutenant Kije, a score to the film of the same name made in 1934. Although not well-known of itself, I am pretty certain that many people will have heard the "Troika" movement as it is a popular Christmas theme on documentaries and advertisements. Greg Lake borrowed it for them theme of his Christmas song "I Believe in Father Christmas". The story on which it is based is a satire of Czarist Russian bureaucracy - the creation of an imaginary army officer by a misspelling in a military duty roster. This imaginary officer is then blamed for mishaps, exiled, recalled to marry his sweetheart, only to die and be buried with full military honours and is posthumously made a General.
Whatever the ostensible connection between the three suites, this recording is enjoyable enough. Most of the individual movements are short and the recurrence of the musical themes through each suite increases the familiarity of them with repeated listens. For those not familiar with classical music, the works are accessible and easy on the ear, without requiring any great effort on the part of the listener. And of course, Pictures at an Exhibition an old favourite, is always worth revisiting.
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