In a chance conversation after a recent recital at which I performed Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, an audience member reminded me about the current exhibition, Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky at the National Portrait Gallery in London. So today I went to see it … and came face to face with Mussorgsky, in the iconic portrait by Ilya Repin, painted in March 1881. The sittings for the portrait were between 3rd-5th March in a hospital ward in St Petersburg, where Mussorgsky had been admitted owing to chronic alcoholism. Repin had wanted another sitting – but sadly, Mussorgsky died on 16th March.
On either side of Mussorgsky’s portrait are those of two other musical giants: Anton Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky. On another wall is Rimsky-Korsakov; elsewhere, Chaliapin, Akhmatova, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov and a host of other important Russian artistic figures. Vladimir Stasov is there, too – he whose idea it was to mount the exhibition of Hartmann’s paintings which were Mussorgsky’s inspiration. And discreetly playing in the background are excerpts of music by the composers, including – right on cue as I stood staring into his eyes – Mussorgsky’s Great Gate of Kiev.