Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is an incredibly popular work – and with good reason. Tonight, this exciting piece was combined with works by two other Russian greats: Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Festival Overture and Tchaikovksy’s Piano Concerto no. 1, played by Nikolai Lugansky.

Otto Tausk, © Marco Borggreve
Otto Tausk,
© Marco Borggreve

The Russian Easter Festival Overture uses melodies from Russian Orthodox liturgy, and transforms them into an orchestral work with incredible depth and colour. It truly is a work to keep you on the edge of your seat with a smile on your face. It starts off calmly and purely, introducing one of the main themes, and the Residentie Orkest string section made a particularly great impression. Quickly, the ouverture becomes more energetic and the brass and woodwind sections become more involved. What struck me about the work is that despite its indubitable Russianness, it is so clear that other composers such as Ravel and Debussy were greatly influenced by Rimsky-Korsakov and in particular by the way he can depict a fairytale-like world just through his orchestration.

Nikolai Lugansky is one of the best pianists for Russian repertoire out there. His interpretations of Prokofiev and Rachmaninov concertos are always spot on, and this concert confirmed that Tchaikovksy is another good friend of his. As soon as the brass played the first notes of the concerto, and the rest of the orchestra and Lugansky joined in, it was clear that they were well attuned to each other. The Piano Concerto no. 1 not only has an incredible piano part, but the music played by the orchestra is almost worthy of a symphony itself – full of Tchaikovskian melodies and pathos, with the subtleties and emotional impact you would also expect.

At the same time, this concerto is chock-full of cadenzas, and they were all played beautifully. The last cadenza of the first movement almost had me in tears, and I felt a tinge of disappointment when the orchestra joined in again – which shows the quality of the soloist, and not a lack of quality in the orchestra! The third movement was another highlight – it has a lot of interesting rhythmical changes in the piano part, and when combined with a high level of energy and these particular melodies it makes for a piece that you wish they’d play more than once, because it’s just so incredibly catchy.

Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky was originally a piano suite, and tonight the Residentie Orkest play the orchestral version arranged by Ravel in 1922. The work was inspired by paintings by Mussorgsky’s friend Viktor Hartmann, and each piece of music depicts one particular painting (apart from the “Promenade” section that recurs throughout). This makes it an incredibly versatile work – from the hilarious music accompanying the “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” to the drama of “The Great Gates of Kiev”. My own favourite is “Baba Yaga” / “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs”, a scherzo-like piece that depicts the witch’s flight which is rather creepy yet fun. The Residentie Orkest played the entire Pictures at an Exhibition suite perfectly; there are some interpretations of the work that I find too slow or calm (it needs to be exciting!), but this was certainly not the case here. Otto Tausk and the orchestra clearly enjoyed playing and the programming of the pieces was very well done. All-Russian concerts are often very heavy and emotionally draining, but a program like this, with music that mainly puts a smile on your face, was certainly a pleasant change.

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