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Pictures At An Exhibition
Emerson, Lake & Palmer

Cotillion ELP 66666
Released: January 1972
Chart Peak: #10
Weeks Charted: 23
Certified Gold: 4/17/72

Not so long ago, they used to make students of classical music (and any other kind, too) listen to Mussorgsky's "Pictures at An Exhibition" to give them an idea of how music can convey a very exact idea without ever resorting to the spoken word. Emerson, Lake and Palmer's version of Mussorgsky's classic is not a very faithful one, but it certainly could be used to illustrate the same point about music.

Emerson, Lake and Palmer - Pictures At An Exhibition
Original album advertising art.
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At the opening of the piece, the listener is treated to a promenade in a picture gallery... a walk through a hall lined with pictures, and the pace and beat of the music brings to mind a slow stroll through a place that is not without grandeur. This "Promenade" section of the record is pure Mussorgsky, rendered faithfully by ELP, and it is not until the next selection (a stop at the first exhibition picture, if you will) that Carl Palmer contributes his bit to "The Gnome." From there on in, with the exception of "The Hut of Baba Yaga," the boys help the old master along with their way-out electric sound and strange countermelodies superimposed on his delicate ones. For the most part they do a bang-up job of it, but there are moments when they should have left well enough alone... "well enough" being, for instance, the lyric-less pattern that Mussorgsky intended. Oh, well.

For those of you who are expecting to hear some good ol' rock 'n' roll, you'll be endlessly disappointed. For those of you who are purists and believe that nothing can possibly improve on the original, you mightn't like the ELP version either. But all Emerson, Lake and Palmer fans and those of you out there who believe (as Rilke and Valery) that we must constantly look for new ways to say things, Pictures at an Exhibition is a sound investment.

- Daisy Buchanan, Words & Music, 5-72

Bonus Reviews!

Classically-influenced rock is a relatively new phenomenon, but already it has resulted in some genuinely awful and pretentious "fusions," musical excursions which might have succeeded if the band members had a firmer grip on the works of the masters. Prime movers in the trend have been ELP, and while no one can quarrel with their knowledge of the classics, one can quite easily take issue with their ability to interpret a composer like Mussorgsky. It seems instead that Keith Emerson and Cohorts are more interested in borrowing the best parts of this highly complex work of art and bending them to suit their own needs, probably figuring that the majority of their audience would not be acquainted with Mussorgsky in the first place. Quite a cynical move, wouldn't you say? Or would you argue that the trio is entirely justified in using "Pictures" as a jumping-off point for their own particular type of rock pyrotechnics? Certainly, judging from the enthusiastic response of the crowd on this live recording, the latter position would seem to have its adherents. What it should come down to is whether you like ELP enough to forgive their tampering with a masterpiece, and whether a composer who has been dead for ninety years can truly be said to have been ripped off.

- Ed Kelleher, Circus, 4-72.

This cover version of Moussorgsky's mouldy oldie does have a big new beat, but you can't dance to it, and the instrumentation seems a bit spare. Anyway, the truth is that I don't even listen to the original much. D+

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

A live recording of the Mussorgsky piece which, despite its wildness, holds up well as a psychedelic art-rock showcase. * * *

- Bruce Eder, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

Pictures at an Exhibition is a contrived concept album recorded live that puts a stale rock spin on Russian composer Mussorgsky's great classical work. It has neither the majesty of the original nor the earthy power of rock and roll. *

- David Yonke, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

Always one for the big entrance, Emerson, Lake and Palmer premiered their rocked-up vesion of Russian composer Modeste Mussorgsky's classical work at 1970's Isle of Wight Festival, their first proper show together.

William Neal's artwork was a very sedate affair -- empty picture frames in a gallery -- completely out of scale with the impact of the music. Far more noteworthy was Emerson's work with the Moog synthesizer, an innovation rarely found outsie the studio due to its unpredictability and because many bands did not regard it as a "real instrument."

Ironically, the highlight of the record was an original composition from Lake, "The Sage," which had been intended for another record but fitted the mood perfectly. It featured his best ever recorded acoustic guitar playing. By contrast, "The Hut of Baba Yaga" saw Emerson follow some speedy Hammond organ with a chunky Moog workout. He then switched to boogie-woogie piano for a cover of B. Bumble And The Stingers' 1962 Tchaikovsky pastiche "Nut Rocker," concluding proceedings with a suitably irreverent bang.

Pictures... was only released in the U.S. after import levels became overwhelming, upon which it went to No. 10 on the Billboard chart. The album gave them their third UK Top Three in a year and a groundbreaker in the mold of Keith Emerson's previous band, The Nice. For better or worse, a trail had been blazed.

- Michael Heatley, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.

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