Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures from an Exhibition (1874) [35:47]
Serge PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Sarcasms, Op. 17 (1912-14) [10:35]
Visions fugitives, Op. 22 (1915-17) [19:34]
Steven Osborne (piano)
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, UK, 17-18, 20 December 2011. DDD
HYPERION CDA67896 [65:58]
Steven Osborne continues to impress with a repertoire that seems
to be expanding by the day. With acclaimed discs of Rachmaninov, Debussy,
Ravel, Britten and Tippett, he now adds his interpretations of Mussorgsky’s
masterpiece for piano and two early Prokofiev cycles. All of the performances
here should wear very well over time, as Osborne employs his fabulous
technique completely at the service of the composers. As David Fanning
notes in his excellent discussion of the works in the CD booklet,
the title Pictures from an Exhibition is the literal and
correct translation of the Russian Kartynki s vystavki rather
than the more usual “Pictures at an Exhibition”. The correct translation
makes more sense because Mussorgsky selected only certain paintings
and drawings from the Viktor Hartmann exhibition.
Following the piano score while listening to Osborne’s recording,
one will see that the pianist meticulously carries out Mussorgsky’s
instructions as to tempo, pedalling, and dynamics. However, more than
that, he characterizes each of the movements very well, too. He is
especially good when it comes to the lighter pieces, such as Tuilleries,
The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks and Limoges.
Nor does he lack the power to bring across the bigger sections. His
Bydlo is very heavy. One can almost feel the wheels of the
ox cart lumbering up the hill. He attacks Baba Yaga with
vehemence and follows it with a very majestic Great Gate of Kiev.
There are a couple of places where I wish he had departed a little
from the literal. The Promenade could be a bit slower and
grander, as Vladimir Ashkenazy plays it in his recording. On the other
hand, I am happy that he hasn’t distorted this to the degree Mikhail
Pletnev did in his travesty of the work. The timing of the initial
Promenade for Osborne is 1:17 and for Ashkenazy 1:24, while
Pletnev extends it to 1:40. Ashkenazy seems about right to me here.
Also he makes more of the bell sounds in the Great Gate of Kiev
by striking those notes harder than does Osborne. Overall, though,
these are not all that significant. Osborne will be easy to live with
and a reading one will want to return to, unlike Pletnev’s which should
have been designated as by Mussorgsky-Pletnev since he rarely follows
the score, ignores dynamics, over-pedals, adds octaves and completely
changes the ending by making it sound like something Horowitz would
have done. Osborne presents the work with all due honesty and respect,
and one can really appreciate the result.
If anything, the Prokofiev works accompanying Pictures are
of even greater interest as they are not recorded as often as the
Mussorgsky or as his own sonatas. Both Sarcasms and Visions
fugitives come from early in the composer’s career, though the
latter cycle displays a greater range than does Sarcasms.
Many of the Visions fugitives, in fact show the more lyrical
side of the composer also evident from his Violin Concerto No. 1.
There are twenty of these brief pieces, most of which last a minute
or less but contain much that is memorable in such a small space.
They all contain tempo indications and explicit markings, though only
one, No. 7, has a title, “The Harp”, that describes well the sound
of the piece. Taken as a whole, the Visions fugitives contain
the whole gamut of emotions from sad and mysterious, to whimsical
and boisterous. A few anticipate the composer’s later music, No. 6
containing the germ of his Third Piano Concerto, while No. 10 sounds
like the beginning of a dance from Romeo and Juliet. My favorites
include the songlike No. 8, the very whimsical No. 11, the rather
sad No. 16, marked dolente, and the impressionistic No. 17,
marked poetico. Although I have had the piano score in my
library for years, No. 16 was the only one I ever actually played
- and not all that well, I must say. Osborne leaves nothing to be
desired in his journey through the cycle. He captures the mood of
each of the brief pieces and, as with Pictures, his virtuosity
is totally at the service of the music.
Sarcasms, a cycle of five somewhat longer pieces - though
the longest is still under four minutes - leaves a rather different
impression from that left by the Visions fugitives. These
are for the most part percussive, experimental works that sound at
times like early Bartók. They contain such indications as tempestoso,
smanioso and precipitosissimo. Indeed, they live
up to these designations. The last one, marked precipitosissimo,
begins with fast pounding chords and then stops with a long pause
before continuing quietly with a “sneaky” note progression inflected
with whimsy. The piece never recovers its brilliant beginning but
just sort of peters out with march-like chords in the bass, ending
softly. Fascinating stuff and superbly realized by Osborne.
Hyperion does its usual production justice to these scintillating
performances. The recording captures the sound of the piano as well
as I have ever heard it done. There is a natural warmth, without the
instrument being in your face, but with crystalline clarity so that
nothing is missed. I followed the scores for both Pictures from
an Exhibition and Visions fugitives and could easily
tell how rigorous Osborne is in his fidelity to the music as written.
The booklet with David Fanning’s exemplary notes has a colorful cover,
very Russian, with a painting of a Moscow cathedral resembling St.
Basil’s. The only improvement I can think of — and this has been alluded
to many times in the past in reviews of Mussorgsky’s masterpiece —
would be to include reproductions of the Hartmann paintings that inspired
the composer. The music itself, though, is more than enough to depict
what visually may be missing.
A warm welcome is in order for these remarkable performances.