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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Six Moments Musicaux op.16 (1896) [28:19]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)

Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) [37:08]
Lilya Zilberstein (piano)
rec. 8-10 November 2004, location not given

The adjective most likely to be brought to mind by Lilya Zilberstein’s Rachmaninov playing is "lovely". Not that it lacks power. In the last piece the chords ring out imperiously against a whirlwind of figuration, yet the chords are always rounded in tone, the figuration never obtrusive. Paradoxically, your jaw may be made to drop more easily by players who are making heavier weather of it all. She is also always ready to relax whenever a new harmonic vista allows.

The same thing may be said of the whole cycle. Textures are clear but full, the melodies and counter-melodies arch gracefully around each other, there is a natural sense of give and take to the rubato. These are very musical moments indeed.

And yet, if you go to Rachmaninov himself in no.2 – the only one of the set he recorded – you realize there is more to be found in the music. Zilberstein’s melodies soar proudly above the sea of arpeggios, but with Rachmaninov the arpeggios take on a life of their own, almost as if someone else is playing them. He is just that little bit tauter in his definition of the structure.

Still, if we are going to reject all performances that are on a lower level than those Rachmaninov gave or might have given that won’t leave us with much and I can’t imagine anyone being disappointed with these performances. It is, I repeat, lovely playing.

Likewise in the Mussorgsky, while Zilberstein certainly doesn’t lack panache or grandeur – there’s a scintillating explosion in the link between Limoges and Catacombae – the parts that remain in the mind are the softer ones. I tend to groan with anticipated boredom when anybody starts Il Vecchio Castello as slowly as she does, yet she creates an atmosphere of inconsolable heaviness of heart that captured and held me. Catacombae and Con Mortuis are probingly and atmospherically played. Several of the intermediate Promenades are notable for their sense of poetic reflection and Gnomus has mystery and shadow as well as grotesquery. The Tuileries and the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks, on the other hand, are delightful. This isn’t always the most hard-hitting Pictures but it must be one of the most attractive. By contrast, a version purporting to be by Joyce Hatto is plainer but also tougher, at times more vivid, and will make a genuine alternative when identified. In the last resort neither knocks you for six like Richter.

Ah, the "Hatto"! I confess I asked to review this disc following a tip-off. In my article on Hatto, "Some thoughts, some questions and a lot of letters", I pointed out that the "Hatto" Pictures has an unmarked, but magical, piano at b.21 of Bydlo where the melody suddenly goes up high, and I invited readers to tell me of any other recordings which do this. Nobody answered directly, but a newsgroup discussion drew attention to the fact that Zilberstein makes this piano. And indeed she does, but there are countless other differences of tempo, rubato and dynamics. Besides, if the two performances had matched it would have opened up a new chapter in the scandal, for the Zilberstein came out a year after "Hatto"! I note that the Zilberstein uses the Wiener Urtext Edition. I haven’t seen this, but if it has a piano at this point then there may be quite a few recordings that follow it. All the same, the majority probably use the Pavel Lamm edition, which is also supposed to be Urtext, so I appeal again to readers to help assemble a list of recordings which have this sudden piano in Bydlo. One of them will have to be the "Hatto". Incidentally, a performance of the Rachmaninov op.16 pieces by "Hatto" was described as "truly great" by Bryce Morrison as recently as the February Gramophone. This was a "Hatto" I never got, but I should say the present disc is too recent to be its source.

My apologies to Lilya Zilberstein for dragging Hatto into this review, but at least I can assure her that her Mussorgsky has not been pillaged. And recommend her excellent disc. It is also finely recorded. Though the location is not given this is a co-production with Sudwestrundfunk, Stuttgart, so presumably their studios were used. Many collectors will want this for the relatively rare Rachmaninov but they will, I am sure, be glad to have the Mussorgsky too.

Christopher Howell



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