Pictures at an Exhibition was one of the seminal documents of the progressive rock era, a record that made its way into the collections of millions of high-school kids who never heard of composer Modest Mussorgsky and knew nothing of Russia's Nationalist "Five" or artist/architect Victor Hartmann, whose work was the inspiration for Mussorgsky. Chronologically, it was Emerson, Lake & Palmer's third LP release (they didn't regard it as an "official" album, as it was comprised of only part of a longer live performance), but ...
Pictures at an Exhibition was one of the seminal documents of the progressive rock era, a record that made its way into the collections of millions of high-school kids who never heard of composer Modest Mussorgsky and knew nothing of Russia's Nationalist "Five" or artist/architect Victor Hartmann, whose work was the inspiration for Mussorgsky. Chronologically, it was Emerson, Lake & Palmer's third LP release (they didn't regard it as an "official" album, as it was comprised of only part of a longer live performance), but for a lot of teenagers who'd missed out on the trio's self-titled debut album or resisted the unfamiliarity of Tarkus, Pictures -- which was budget-priced in its original LP release in England and America -- with its bracing live ambience and blazing pyrotechnics, was the album that put the group over, and did it with exactly the same kids who turned Jethro Tull's Aqualung and Thick as a Brick and Yes' Fragile into standard-issue accouterments of teenage suburban life. And, indeed, like the Tull and Yes albums, it worked on several levels that allowed widely divergent audiences to embrace it -- with the added stimulus of certain controlled substances, it teased the brain with its mix of melody and heavy rock, and for anyone with some musical knowledge, serious or casual, it was a sufficiently bold use of Mussorgsky's original to stimulate hours of delightful listening. It wasn't the first treatment of a classical piece in this manner by any means -- Keith Emerson had done several previously with his earlier group the Nice -- but it was the first to reach a mass audience or get heavy radio play (at least of excerpts), and introduced the notion of "classical rock" to millions of listeners, including the classical community, most of whose members regarded this record as something akin to an armed assault. Those with less hidebound sensibilities appreciated Emerson's rollicking and delightful "Blues Variations" -- which bridged the gap between Tarkus and Trilogy -- and Greg Lake's lyrical adaptations of "Promenade," "The Sage," and "The Great Gates of Kiev." It does some violence to Mussorgsky in the process, but is also the most concise, energetic, and well-realized live release in ELP's catalog, the hall small enough to capture the finer nuances of the playing by all three members of the trio, and especially the muscular bass work by Lake that keeps pushing the performance forward. It was great fun (an element missing from a good deal of progressive rock) in 1972, and it's still fun in 2005. It also made a fairly compelling case for adapting classical pieces in this way -- ELP would later succeed with adaptations of works by Aaron Copland and Alberto Ginastera, among others, but this would be the longest such work to find mass listenership, sufficient so that in the late '80s there would be a legitimate classical organ arrangement put out by the Dorian label that referred to ELP's rendition as its linear predecessor. The early-'70s live sound is a little crude by today's standards, but the various CD upgrades from Rhino, Sanctuary, and Japanese WEA have given the recording a close, powerful sound that captures the tightness of the playing (drummer Carl Palmer is especially good) and makes up for any sonic inadequacies. Emerson is the dominant musical personality here, but Lake (who also gets to play some classical guitar) and Palmer get the spotlight more than enough to prevent it from being a pure keyboard showcase. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi
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