Pictures at an Exhibition
This afternoon's record selection is the excellent "Pictures at an Exhibition", by Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
Recorded in March 1971 at Newcastle City Hall, it's an audacious re-working of a piece by the same name, from the popular classical repertoire. ELP's first live release, it's uncommon for it to feature highly in a list of greatest ELP albums, but I think that's a little unfair.
In general, I'm rather skeptical of modern takes on classical pieces. The outcome is rarely anything other than a curiosity. However, in this case, Keith Emerson spearheads something really a little bit special.
The original Mussorgsky piece was scored for virtuosic piano. The most commonly known and performed orchestration is that of Maurice Ravel in 1921, and it's this to which the present record pays somewhat dubious homage.
Mussorgsky depicts ten pictures, with a 'promenade' between each one. ELP only include four of these musical portraits, plus the walk, adding their own pieces which sometimes refer to themes, and sometimes diverge wildly into their own imaginative frolickng.
The most recognisably Mussorgskyesque is definitely the promenade. The other four, to varying degrees, offer a nod in the original's direction, but the concept is really just a launchpad for some exemplary prog bombast.
There's everything you could ask for. Complex time signatures, epic Moog and Hammond solos, ethereal instrumental interludes, bonkers and fantastical lyrics, and an overload of distortion that King Crimson would be proud of.
That's not to say the album is without its flaws. It doesn't quite hang together, and is downright silly in places, but on balance the greats (and there are many) outweigh the not-so-greats.
The record begins with a promenade - the first of three. This is played on the actual organ where the live performance was delivered. It's an accomplished performance - atmospheric and moody.
We evolve into Gnome, and immediately we have drums and bass, and it's clear what we're to expect for the remainder of the record. The themes of Mussorgsky's Gnomus are recognisable, but there's a significant amount of original interpretation and augmentation.
Next we have another promenade. This is a bit silly, in my view. The same musical concept as the first promenade, but this time Lake's vocals accompanied by hammond. The lyrics are ludicrous, and it's all a bit daft. We transition with a short synth solo, of original provenance.
The next movement, if you will, is "The Sage". This bears no resemblance to anything from the original/inspiration. It's effectively an acoustic balance, in style not unlike the romantic love songs of medieval Germany. It's quite pleasant, and easy to listen to, but unspectacular.
The Old Castle follows, and this, together with what follows, is the highlight of side 1. All sorts of Moogy fun, with some racy echoes of Mussorgsky, descending into a superb blues jam, ending with some crazy synthesiser sounds. Brilliant.
The second side begins with the third and final promenade, percussively accompanied, leading us into a sandwich of Baba Yaga pieces. The outers are 'the hut', which is a rather well done, syncopated rendition of Mussorgky's theme.
The middle is 'the curse'. A marvellous fusion of bass, with moog, and trademark percussion. Here we're entirely within the creative genius of ELP. The instruments pile on top of each other, yet the cacophony works. Somehow it manages not to sound overblown.... until the lyrics set in, and it all gets a bit silly again. If you can overlook this blemish, this is prog at its finest - adventurous, big, self-indulgent, and glorious.
The other side of the sandwich is up-tempo, but the Mussorgsky theme can be picked out, and it's in contrast to the curse in the middle.
The finale is the Great Gates of Kiev. Mussorgsky's original is clearly recognisable, although again, marred by the addition of more silly lyrics. However, this time it seems to work.
The encore is an ELP favourite - their own playful take on B. Bumble and the Stingers' 1962 instrumental rock version of Tchaikovsky's "March of the Toy Soldiers". It's fun, but missable.
So what do I make of it?
I think this album stands on its own, despite vociferous criticism from even ardent ELP fans. Can we really take it seriously? Of course not! It's ridiculous; it's silly; it's pretentious. As a snapshot of early 70s musical experimentation, however, it holds significance, and it's well worth a listen. If you are interested in prog rock, it's a must listen, and arguably a must own.
Stephen Nelson-Smith is founder and principal consultant at Expressive Audio, in Chichester, West Sussex.