Pictures at an Exhibition

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As a student in Amsterdam I was forced to take a module in orchestration. That in itself was not a problem (except for the fact I am rubbish at transposition, so always ended up with horns in the wrong key for everything), but I hated the weeks when we had to play from our own scores.

My keyboard skills are just about good enough to play a Bach chorale, or a few songs from Disney's Greatest Hits Compendium, so you can imagine the sleepless nights the dread of having to play my orchestrations in front of the class - all of whom were, by chance, first study pianists - gave me. A smarter person would have spent a little time learning how to play their score before class, but I was too interested in studying viola.

My day of reckoning came the afternoon I had to hand in a wind quintet arrangement of Tuileries from Mussorgsky's piano masterwork, Pictures at an Exhibition. Not only was my French horn once more wrongly transposed, but I was completely unable to read the score and play the piano at the same time.

There followed the most excruciating hour of Professor Kemme coercing me through the movement, note by note, phrase by phrase, in what must have been the longest performance of Tuileries ever.

Pictures at an Exhibition must be one of the most arranged works of all time (there's evening an arrangement for euphonium and four tubas), but thankfully the Swansea audience will not be subjected to either my piano 'skills', nor my arrangement of Pictures, on Friday evening. Instead, we shall be playing Ravel's beautiful, colourful score.

Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures is perhaps the most loved, and most played of the multitude of arrangements that exist of this work. Legend has it that when Henry Wood heard Ravel's arrangement, he withdrew his own arrangement and insisted it not be played during his lifetime again.

Having played Henry Wood's arrangement at the Proms a few years ago, I can understand this, though Wood's inclusion of an organ in the Great Gate of Kiev adds a great deal of oomph to the finale (it also covers up any swearing from the strings as they try to negotiate all the horrible passage work of that particular arrangement's finale).

My favourite aspects of Ravel's orchestration are the Promenades that separate most of the main episodes. Each has such an individual flavour, each is subtly different, and with each one you truly do get a sense of moving from one painting to another, not just in time, but also in colour.

I know it has been said so often it has become a cliché, but this arrangement is a masterclass in orchestration by one of the greatest orchestrators of classical music.

You can find a number of the Hartmann sketches that inspired Mussorgsky's original composition online, and they are well worth having a look at. My enthusiasm for Ravel aside, the original Pictures in itself is a remarkable piece and doesn't deserve to be overshadowed by any of its orchestral progeny.

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales plays Pictures at an Exhibition tonight (Friday 19 April) at Brangwyn Hall, Swansea. Tickets are available from the door or by calling 01792 475715.

The concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at 2pm on Sunday 28 April, as part of Sunday Concert.

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