I owe a word of thanks to Nina Wexelblatt — after reading her piece “Fever dreams of indie pop” in the Oct. 7 issue of WEEKEND, I came round to the sobering reality that I, too, owe a public apology. While her obsession with indie pop is a modern one, mine is far more ancient. I am hopelessly obsessed with classical music, and as such incessantly preach the beauty of Beethoven’s symphonies (or some such nonsense) to any poor soul who gives me the chance. So, to those whom I have tortured with my speech, I am quite sorry. This might make more sense if I tell you that although the government says I’m a responsible adult as of two weeks ago, I’m about 58 on the inside; for my 15th birthday, I asked my parents for a cable-knit sweater and tickets to the see the Dallas Symphony Orchestra play “Scheherazade.”
But classical music isn’t just for geezers! Before I proceed any further, let me assuage your fears — I’m not going to try and convince you with righteous prose that any one composer is or was more of a genius than, say, Lil’ Wayne or Miley Cyrus. No, instead I’ll proselytize under the guise of a harmless request: I want you to buy an album. Now, I’m not going to introduce you to anything so mainstream as Mozart or Tchaikovsky. Instead, I want to offer up a gem of a recording that does superb justice to the works of two relatively obscure Russian composers, Modest Mussorgsky and Alexander Borodin.
Simply put, these fellows were in a different universe than that of their western European contemporaries. Mussorgsky and Borodin were members of a group known as “The Five” or “The Mighty Handful” that formed with the goal of creating an earthy, authentic repertoire of Russian music (truth be told, I will never understand how anyone thought the words “mighty” and “handful” could ever go together). This coterie of young composers — which also included Mily Balakirev, César Cui, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov — were, compared to elite conservatory-trained men like Tchaikovsky, a bunch of misfits: Mussorgsky was an ex-cadet and raging alcoholic while Borodin was a tenured chemistry professor.
Enough history. The album is fittingly entitled “Mussorgsky & Borodin,” recorded in 1991 by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Sir Charles Mackerras. It features three separate works: Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” and “A Night on the Bare Mountain,” and the overture and dances from Borodin’s opera “Prince Igor.” If you had a typical American childhood like me, you’ll most likely recognize “Bare Mountain” from Walt Disney’s “Fantasia”; if not, purchase a Netflix account immediately. Be forewarned: much of the music on this album will probably freak you out, but in the best way possible. A good deal of it is downright frightening, accentuated not a little by the exotic feel that weaves its way through the orchestration. In fact, I dare anyone to give “Bare Mountain” a listen and say to my face that it didn’t get the ol’ heart pumping. This album, in my humble opinion, showcases the best qualities of classical music because it captures an incredible emotional depth — the angelic purity of Borodin’s choral writing stands out so beautifully against the dark turmoil that rages in Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” (see “Polovtsian Dance no. 2,” Prince Igor, and “No. XIV, The Hut on Hen’s Legs,” respectively).
I sincerely hope that this album resonates with you — whether you’ve been listening to classical music for 30 years or three — because it gets at something bigger than just a piece, or a composer, or even a centuries-old tradition. I love this kind of music because it’s moving: it’s at once haunting, beautiful, and believable, a quality that much of the music of today sorely lacks. In that sense, it’s hardly surprising that the composition history of each one of the featured works was a tortured, drawn-out affair (Borodin worked on “Prince Igor” off-and-on for 18 years). Of course, I know that “Mussorgsky & Borodin” won’t please everyone, but the $5.99 it costs to purchase on iTunes might just turn into a surprisingly edifying one.