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  Founder: Len Mullenger
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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 28 (1907)
Modeste MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)

Pictures at an Exhibition (1874)
Joyce Hatto, piano
Rec. 8 January 1996 and 16 March 1999 at the Concert Artist Studios, Cambridge, UK. DDD
CONCERT ARTIST CACD 9129-2 [72.27]


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This unexpected and, I think, unique coupling provides much food for thought, quite apart from the quality of the performances. Both works stand slightly outside the standard piano repertoire. Pictures at an Exhibition is undoubtedly a masterpiece. Mussorgsky evokes with uncanny skill the essence of each painting viewed as the visitor passes from one to the other. The mood, character and force of the different pieces is such that we can conceive of each as a separate work within a collection of works by the same artist. The work has been taken up by most of the world’s greatest pianists at one time or other, but this says more about the quality of the music than it does about the piano writing as such. As the accompanying notes remind us, many pianists, Horowitz amongst them, have sought to adapt or to modify Mussorgsky’s writing in order to make it more effective. Even Rachmaninov, we are told, had similar thoughts, but later abandoned them. The music lasts for thirty-five minutes or so, yet it covers only twenty-nine pages in my ancient and disintegrating score. The whole of the first page is made up of single lines, octaves and block chords, as is much of pages two and three. There is little in the way of variety of texture, few examples of the musical material being shared between the hands, virtually nothing in the way of counterpoint. It doesn’t even look like piano music on the page, nor, in many places, does it sound like it. Yet what music it is, from the syncopated limping of the dwarf in Gnomus, the extraordinarily evocative picture of the troubadour singing before The Old Castle; and how French the children sound, as they play in the Tuileries! One could go on, but the fact is that in spite of the unidiomatic piano writing each of the pictures is a masterly tone painting. The lack of textual variety becomes apparent only when listening to the work right through, but several of the pieces would not work purely as piano music - even extracted and played separately from the rest. The music which represents Goldenberg and Schmuyle is marvellously evocative but it singularly fails to engage the possibilities of the piano. The artist himself contemplating the catacombs of Paris is poorly evoked by long, sustained chords, striking though the harmonies are, and nobody should claim that the laboriously massive – and impressive – chords which close the work amount to effective piano writing. Thus it is that many of us, perhaps most of us, know this work primarily in its orchestral guise, thanks mainly to Ravel, though many others have had a go at it too. Once we have made acquaintance with the troubadour’s anachronistic saxophone, Schmuyle’s nasal, wining trumpet, or the splendidly sonorous close, I think we may be forgiven for wondering if anybody could ever prefer the original.

Rachmaninov’s sonata, roughly contemporary with the Second Symphony, also stands apart in that it has never achieved much in the way of popularity. Here, as we would expect, the music is wonderfully well conceived for the instrument, exploiting its possibilities to the full despite lengthy passages of ferocious difficulty. It is long and, in parts, rather gloomy, but this is to be expected also. However, the composer is less generous than usual with the endless melodic lines we have also come to expect. The very activity of the piece can lead to a certain fatigue, the climaxes are not always easy to place, and several listenings and much close attention is needed before the form of the last movement in particular starts to make sense. The work as a whole requires a lot of effort from the listener, and even then we may not think that the essence of Rachmaninov, as heard in the concertos or many of the shorter piano works, is to be found here.

Both works need committed advocacy if they are to convince the audience, and both, in their different ways, require exceptional technical skill. These qualities are all present on this excellent disc. Even Joyce Hatto can do little with the Great Gate of Kiev – given a slightly modified title on the cover – despite playing of awesome power, but her view of Pictures is constantly illuminating. She is extremely successful at suggesting the varying moods of the visitor as portrayed in the different Promenades, and the sensitivity with which she engineers the transition from Promenade to The Old Castle is just one of many examples of the insight she brings to the work. The score is not overloaded with expression marks, especially in the Promenades, and Miss Hatto sometimes surprises us with individual touches. Where the composer does indicate his wishes, however, she is characteristically scrupulous in respecting them, except at the beginning of Bydlo, where she rejects the idea of a quiet start and gradual crescendo, preferring to begin the piece strongly. There are impressive historical precedents for this, and she is totally successful in evoking the rumbling heaviness of the cart, but those who are attracted to the idea of the cart arriving from and disappearing into the distance will be as surprised as I was.

Those who know Joyce Hatto’s discs of the Rachmaninov concertos (also on Concert Artist) will not be surprised that she is equally convincing in the sonata. She is particularly successful at creating structural unity, far from easy in so diffuse a work, and she rises, needless to say, to every technical challenge the composer sets. Her way with the ebb and flow of Rachmaninov style is very affecting also. The first movement is totally convincing, from its arresting opening to its touching use of these opening gestures in its final bars. The multi-voiced writing which dominates the slow movement is as far removed from Mussorgsky as you can get, but Miss Hatto is as much at one with this as she is with Mussorgsky’s octaves and single lines. There is an argument, I think, for finding the finale to be Rachmaninov at his most garrulous; most careful advocacy is needed in order to win the listener over. Joyce Hatto succeeds, though ‘careful’ is hardly the word to use in connection with her playing here. At times she seems possessed by the music, and she carries the listener along with her.

Superb playing, then, faithfully recorded, giving us at once the opportunity to reassess a work we thought we knew, and to make the acquaintance of another. Strongly recommended.

William Hedley

see also review by Jonathan Woolf

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