Pictures at an Exhibition – Program Note by Leonard Slatkin

Written by: Leonard Slatkin

There are now about thirty-five orchestral versions of Pictures at an Exhibition, which Mussorgsky, of course, wrote as a suite for piano alone, but which Ravel made into a very successful work for orchestra. Some twenty years ago I performed an arrangement by someone other than Ravel – by the Russian conductor Sergei Gorchakov; that led me to explore several of the other alternatives, and eventually to arrange two separate composite versions, compiled from more than a dozen different orchestral settings.

Is there anything wrong with the Ravel? Not really. The usual complaint is that it “does not sound Russian”, whatever that means. Ravel also left out one of the ‘Promenades’. In addition, he altered the piano text considerably, and in fact worked from an edition of the piano score that was known at the time to be less than fully reliable. But it remains that his is the version that is the most performed, and it is quite spectacular.

Most conductors make emendations to Ravel’s orchestration; those I have made were undertaken simply in an effort to bring certain passages more in line with the original material for piano. I have restored the missing “Promenade”, basing my orchestration mostly on what Ravel did in the opening of the work. The section headed ‘Bydlo’ now begins forte, as Mussorgsky indicated. The ‘Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells’ has two additional measures at the end. Some notes are changed in ‘Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle’. And the second statement of the chorale in the concluding ‘Great Gate at Kiev’ now is loud rather than soft.

The other alterations are for the most part decidedly minor, but again a bit closer to what Mussorgsky put into his original version for piano. I have made no changes merely for the sake of change. I still love the way Ravel ended the work, and I would not dream of changing it. Nor would I suggest that what I’ve done with his score is the last word on the piece. Wouldn’t it be interesting if someone were to orchestrate the edition that Vladimir Horowitz made of the piano version when he played the Pictures?

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