Just as Red Riding Hood has a wolf, Narnia has the White Witch, Harry Potter has Voldemort and everywhere has a bogeyman, fairy tales and children’s stories the world over have a villain, and Russian folktales are no exception. In Russian folklore this lot falls to Baba Yaga, the scary witch who lives in a mysterious dark wood in a house with chicken’s claws at its four corners. Whenever the witch hears someone approaching through the forest, the house can turn to face them and the victim can be lured inside, there to be ground in a pestle and mortar. Shades of Hansel and Gretel, perhaps. And when not in use for such a grisly purpose, the pestle and mortar double as a vehicle for flying through the sky.
Above is Hartmann’s design for a clock in the shape of Baba Yaga’s Hut, with its claws. But Mussorgsky’s musical picture goes far further than a literal representation of a clock, or of a hut. The music seethes with barbaric fury and malevolence.
Abrupt interjections lead to a ‘revving up’ of a motor rhythm of leaping octaves in the LH above which the RH jumps and swoops perilously. The music pulsates with furious accents, vicious and vivid.
The tumult subsides, leaving the RH rotating on the interval of a minor 3rd; the LH now has an angular melody, creeping stealthily below in the bass. Chromatic tremolandi and a decrescendo take us to the deepest realms of the instrument; after some moments of suspense we return to the barbaric shrieks of the opening. Plenty of leap practice is needed for this piece which taxes one to the limit, but keep something back in reserve for the final, frenetic dash up the piano, hands alternating from the depths to the heights, finally poised on a precipitous cliff-edge of tension. Wow.