Mussorgsky: ‘Con mortuis in lingua morta’ from ‘Pictures at an exhibition’  [3’54”]

Ivo Pogorelić, piano

18 Viktor Hartmann - the Paris Catacombs

Viktor Hartmann’s depiction of himself (left) visiting the Paris catacombs: the soundtrack is spookier still

It’s one of the great mysteries of music, up there with the identity of Beethoven’s ‘Immortal Beloved‘ and the success of Andrew Lloyd Webber.  How could the composer of Pictures at an exhibition, truly a magnificent piano cycle, have written no other music for the instrument worth pausing over?  We shouldn’t be greedy, of course – it’s just odd.  Modest Petrovic Mussorgsky (1839–81) was one of the greatest of the so-called ‘nationalist’ composers to emerge in the middle of the nineteenth century, dedicated to exalting while drawing stimulation from the indigenous culture of his homeland, rather than aping imported habits of speech.  Like Grieg, he was spurred on in this endeavour by like-minded contemporaries, notable among them the famous (in mid-nineteenth century Russia, that is) architectural designer and painter Viktor Hartmann.  Like Rikard Nordraak, Hartmann died before his time, and like Grieg Mussorgsky – prompted by a visit to a memorial exhibition of his work the following year – provided his friend with a musical monument.

Hartmann was also an artist, and in these Pictures (1874) Mussorgsky presents in sound ten of his late friend’s paintings, together with, in the occasional recurrences of the opening ‘promenade’ theme, the spectator’s reflections as he passes from one to the next, as though himself walking around an exhibition of them.  So much is true, at any rate, until the eighth movement is reached.  In the painting depicted there, The Paris catacombs (reproduced above), Hartmann represents himself inspecting, or preparing to inspect, these catacombs by lantern-light, and this entering of the observer into the work is perhaps why, in the second part of the movement, which is what we have here, the promenade music becomes part of the scene itself.  The section is called Con mortuis in lingua mortua, Latin (bad Latin, according to Wiki – ‘Cum mortuis’ would be correct) for ‘with the dead in a dead language’.  “Well may it be in Latin!” the composer declared on his manuscript.  “The creative spirit of the dead Hartmann leads me towards the skulls, invokes them; the skulls begin to glow softly from within.”  The effect is as disembodied as this suggests, in fact downright chilling, a slowly-evolving trill illuminating the fragmentary remains of the promenade theme as they pass before us.

No one would say the result sounds conspicuously Russian, but then what on earth does it sound like, as played here? Ivo Pogorelić – an interesting personality, to put it mildly – has been criticized in his time for interpretative eccentricity, but this seems to me a tremendous reading both overall and moment to moment.  In particular, how fittingly haunting, and sonically gorgeous, are his conception and execution of this astoundingly futuristic passage?

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