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Modest Petrovich MUSSORGSKY (1839-81)
Piano Music, Vol. 2

Pictures at an Exhibition
Hopak de jeunes ukrainiens
Scène de foire
Sonata (piano duet), C major

Nina Kavtaradze, piano
Michail Voskresensky (sonata duet)
DANACORD DACOCD 552 [56:47] Fullprice


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It is ironic that the only piano piece by Mussorgsky that most people will know is Pictures at an Exhibition in an orchestral arrangement, usually the one by Ravel. Many people who know it in this manifestation may never have heard it in the original and therefore be missing out on a major contribution to 19th century piano literature.

Most of this disc comprises Pictures at an Exhibition; not that you would know it from the title of Complete Piano Works Vol 2., which seems a strange way to sell this great work. However, Danacord's project is a worthy venture but not without its problems. Mussorgsky's keyboard output can be categorised as:–

1 works better known in others' orchestrations

2 works arranged for piano by Mussorgsky of his own works

3 unfinished works.

Vol 2 here contains examples of all three.

Pictures at an Exhibition was in some ways a victim of its own success. Unpublished in Mussorgsky's lifetime, when it became known in western Europe it attracted many devotees at a time when impressionism was in the air. It is ironic that Ravel's orchestration of it is probably more performed than any of his own original works apart from Bolero. Sviatoslav Richter did more than most in focusing back on the original piano version of Pictures at an Exhibition, giving it an airing in his recitals when he started to play in the West in the 1960s. The trouble with this is that Richter's interpretation has become an intimidating benchmark, casting a shadow (to mix a metaphor) from which subsequent performers will find difficulty in escaping.

Nina Kavtaradze's playing is steady and sinewy. It needs to be with music that is not pianistic in the Chopin sense but abounds in fistfuls of consecutive chords and octaves. She has a hard hitting, percussive approach to such passages, judicious use of the pedal allowing for clarity of texture. In contrasting music of dreamy textures and in light, rapid passage work she is a little less successful. For example, in Gnomus, the second movement which comes after the recurring Promenade music, the springy, downward slinking chords could do with more limpid mystery. Nevertheless, her playing of this number reminded me what radical piano writing this is. Coming so near the beginning, no wonder the work had such immediate impact in the West. In the fifth picture, Ballet of the unhatched chickens, and in the seventh, The Market, there are examples of rapid scherzo-type music and here I would have preferred more lightness of touch. But maybe this is a mite unfair because I have Richter in mind and this is the kind of thing at which he was unsurpassable. Overall, her playing has a steady, consistent integrity that gives a sense of constructional solidity to the piece, helping to convince that this a masterpiece of keyboard composition.

Of the three other pieces on the disc, Hopak de jeunes ukrainiens is well known for the same reason as Pictures at an Exhibition. In this case it is Rimsky-Korsakov’s arrangement that is often played and is the sort of piece that makes a good little orchestral encore. The music comes from one of Mussorgsky’s many unfinished works, this one being an opera called The Market in Sorotchinsk from which the composer salvaged a few numbers by transcribing them for piano. Another follows on the disc, Scène de foire, which is an effective impression of the market itself.

Finally we have an unfinished original work for piano duet which is a welcome curiosity rather than anything else. Mussorgsky is clearly not at home in trying to mould his ideas into classical first movement sonata form. We are reminded that in the impressionistic world of Pictures at an Exhibition he was very much playing to his strengths.

For those who do not have a recording of the original Pictures at an Exhibition then this disc is certainly well worth having. It combines an authoritative performance of a piano masterpiece with some enjoyable and interesting fill ups.


John Leeman


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