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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition (1874)
Pyotr Il'yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Music from the Sleeping Beauty (1888-89), arranged M. Pletnev
Six Piano Pieces, Op. 21 (1873)
The Seasons, Op. 37b (1876)
Mikhail Pletnev (piano)
Recorded at St. Martin’s Church, East Woodhay, Berkshire (UK), November 1989 (CD 1) and No.1 Studio, Abbey road, London, (UK), January 1994 (CD 2). DDD
VIRGIN CLASSICS 4 82055 2 [63:53 + 65:54]

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A generous release from Virgin Classics catalogues of previously released piano works by Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky. It is played by the distinguished Russian pianist, conductor and composer Mikhail Pletnev.

In 1990 Pletnev founded the Russian National Orchestra, the first independent orchestra in Russia’s history. Even with the endorsement of Mikhail Gorbachev, the then President of the Soviet Union, the risks were enormous. It was Pletnev’s reputation and commitment that made his dream a reality and a tremendous success. He is one of that group of ultra-talented virtuoso solo performers that are equally at home as eminent conductors and he deserves to be placed alongside luminaries such as Solti, Previn, Barenboim, Rostropovich, Bernstein and Ashkenazy. The versatile Pletnev is also active in the field of composition, although this side of his talents receives a lower profile. Pletnev’s compositions include a Classical Symphony, Triptych for Symphony Orchestra, Fantasy on Kazakh Themes, Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra and piano transcriptions of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and, as performed on this release, The Sleeping Beauty.

After only a couple of minutes listening to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) it is clear that this is undoubtedly the major work on this release. It is difficult not to be struck by the extraordinary and special combination of a highly gifted pianist and the talent of Modest Mussorgsky. In addition, Pletnev makes a highly respectable case for the quality of some of Tchaikovsky piano works. Clearly not in the same league as Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, they are displayed as more than just trivial piano scores.

Mussorgsky wrote the piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition in 1874, inspired following visiting a posthumous exhibition of four hundred or so paintings and drawings by his good-friend Victor Hartmann, in St. Petersburg. A painter, water-colourist, stage designer and architect, Hartman had died at the early age of 39. Devastated by this premature death a grieving Mussorgsky wrote to his friend Stassov,

"This is how the wise usually console us blockheads, in such cases; 'He is no more, but what he has done lives and will live'…Away with such wisdom! When 'he' has not lived in vain, but has created - one must be a rascal to revel in the comforting thought that 'he' can create no more. No, one cannot and must not be comforted, there can be and must be no consolation - it is a rotten morality!"

Viewing Hartmann’s artwork stimulated Mussorgsky greatly. It is likely that composing the Pictures at an Exhibition as a tribute to Hartmann’s art provided him with an element of catharsis. Mussorgsky wrote,

"Ideas, melodies come to me of their own accord, like the roast pigeons in the story - I gorge and gorge and overeat myself. I can hardly hardly manage to put it down on paper fast enough."

Although there is some confusion as to the exact number in the reference books, it is usually stated that Mussorgsky selected ten or eleven of Hartmann’s art-works to transform into musical delineation. In the creation of the piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition Mussorgsky attempted to capture the essence of each picture with vivid tonal realism and an astonishing aptitude for revealing Hartmann’s most subtle artistic creation. Of Mussorgsky’s musical depictions of Hartmann’s pictures, only three art-works were actually contained in the St. Petersburg exhibition. The remainder were part of Mussorgsky’s private collection or those he had seen elsewhere. Hartmann had not achieved a particularly high reputation as an artist and suffered considerable neglect shortly after his death. Consequently many of Hartmann’s art-works that so inspired Mussorgsky are now missing or perhaps destroyed. It is often stated that Victor Hartmann’s name would have been banished into obscurity had Mussorgsky not championed his cause with the suite which was not published until five years after Mussorgsky’s death.

Throughout the essential ‘Russianness’ of the piano suite, Mussorgsky provided a recurring linking theme, that he called a promenade. It represents the visitor strolling from one group of pictures to another and stopping in admiration and contemplation. The adroit promenade theme, in a greatly modified form, constitutes the latter half of the scene entitled Catacombs.

Pictures at an Exhibition has proved exceptionally popular in orchestral transcriptions. I know of various orchestrations of all or parts of the score. Many of these were, I believe, created from Rimsky-Korsakov's edited version of the piano part, which for some time was the only one available. A couple of versions claim to have been played from copies of Mussorgsky’s own handwritten manuscript. It may interest readers that there are orchestrations of various magnitudes from the following: Michail Touchmalov, Sergi Gorchakov, Leopold Stokowski, John Boyd, Julian Hu, Hans Peter Gmur, Giuseppe Becce, Leonardi Leonidas, Henk de Vlieger, Daniel Powers, Walter Goehr, the Isao Tomita orchestration for synthesizer, Granville Bantock, Carl Simpson, Geert van Keulen, the Elgar Howarth setting for brass ensemble, Leo Funtek, Byrwec Ellison, the Kazuhito Yamashita transcription for solo guitar, Douglas Gamley, Lawrence Leonard, Emile Naoumoff, the Emerson Lake & Palmer rock band transcription, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Lucian Cailliet and Henry Wood. By far the most famous of all the orchestrations is that from Ravel, that is now established as a core part of the orchestral repertoire and has become a celebrated orchestral showpiece.

The piano version of Pictures of an Exhibition does however have some detractors. In her book musicologist Kathleen Dale Ninetieth-Century Piano Music (London, 1953) has stated,

"It taxes the performer’s skill without compensating him by beauty or ingenuity in the keyboard writing. The orchestral version made by Ravel in 1922 brings out all the variations in tone-colour that the original version lacks, and the work is now generally performed in this more effective form."

There are many good judges who would contest Kathleen Dale’s assertion thanks mainly to several excellent recorded accounts of the piano score that have subsequently been made widely available from top class soloists namely: Vladimir Horowitz, Sviatoslav Richter, Barry Douglas and Mikhail Pletnev.

The present modern digital release is a must-have first choice recommendation. Pletnev’s imaginative and eminently colourful interpretations of Mussorgsky’s tableaux are highly convincing with a peerless textural variety and that special quality of a truly great performer.

I have not heard the tableau The Old Castle (CD 1, track 4) performed as convincingly and it is easy to hear the troubadour singing outside the mediaeval castle. I was especially impressed with Pletnev’s playing of Mussorgsky’s inspired droning piano bass. In the Tuileries tableau (CD 1, track 6) there are children playing in the famous Parisian gardens. In an otherwise acceptable interpretation Pletnev finds it difficult to hold his enthusiasm in check and plays swifter than the markings. The tableau The ballet of the chicks in their shells (CD 1, track 9) that contains such a preponderance of trills and skittish humour, sees Pletnev at his most uninhibited and expressive. With Pletnev’s brilliant keyboard work In the Limoges marketplace tableau, I can effortlessly visualise the local women talking, gesticulating and chattering. Here the soloist is at his most insightful and poetic (CD 1, track 11). The final tableau The great gate at Kiev (CD 1, track 15), makes a terrific impact. Pletnev’s reading of the image remains powerful and dramatic yet suitably dignified.

I have had for many years an affection for the account from Barry Douglas on vinyl, recorded on RCA Red Seal digital RL 85931. The studio recording is from 1986, the same year that he won the Gold Medal at the 1986 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow. If I am not mistaken Douglas played Mussorgky’s Pictures at an Exhibition at his concert victory. I’m unsure if Douglas’s account has been made available on CD, but it is worth searching out for its exhilaration and eloquence of phrasing. The live 1958 Sofia recital from Sviatoslav Richter, on mono Philips 464 734-2, contains several episodes of poetry and high drama. The Richter account, one of the Philips label’s ‘50 Great Recordings’, has been successfully cleaned up and is certainly worthy of consideration. Another recording that will not disappoint is the thrilling, even earlier, live 1951 performance, from Carnegie Hall by Vladimir Horowitz on mono RCA 74321 84594-2.

Tchaikovsky was said to be an excellent pianist, although he had little ambition and probably not the talent to pursue a solo performing career; he kept up his piano-playing throughout his career for his own satisfaction. Nevertheless Tchaikovsky composed over a hundred solo piano works, many of which were written to order and are often said to display little inspiration and inventiveness. Consequently many of them are ignored and often considered lightweight of a parlour type with occasional lapses into poor taste. On the evidence of these superbly performed accounts, Tchaikovsky’s piano works, which could never be described as distinguished, deserve more than the occasional outing.

Mikhail Pletnev has arranged eleven pieces from Tchaikovsky’s outstandingly successful ballet The Sleeping Beauty of 1889. The ballet’s initial reception in 1890 was a cool one, but it is now considered one of the finest achievements in Russian classical ballet. Although we are not told, Pletnev probably utilised Tchaikovsky’s own piano reduction of the score for these arrangements. Before publication of the ballet score the composer’s piano reduction was for some years the only source for portions of the score.

In the movement The silver fairy (CD 1, track 20), Pletnev’s lightness of touch and rhythm certainly keeps the feet tapping. Equally finely performed is the light and jaunty gavotte (CD 1, track 22). My favourite of all the movements is the Adagio (CD 1, track 22), where Pletnev extracts every ounce of passion and languor from the emotional writing.

In 1873, Tchaikovsky dedicated his set of Six Piano Pieces, Op. 21 to the virtuoso pianist Anton Rubinstein. Composed on a single theme, the booklet notes explain that the works were conceived from the start as a suite, in which he binds together with a real thematic and tonal unity. The Piano Pieces are delightful and appealing works of a variable quality. I especially enjoyed Pletnev’s playing in the third piece, the elegant Chopinesque Impromptu (CD 2, track 3). The following piece, the Funeral march (CD 2, track 4), provides a contrast to the rest of the set and allows Pletnev to scale some impressive heights between passion and tenderness.

The Seasons, Op. 37b are a collection of twelve short pieces and should be more accurately described as the ‘months of the year’. Completed in 1876, the score was an 1875 commission by the publication entitled ‘The Novelist’, for twelve successive issues, each illustrating a month of the year. It is questionable whether Tchaikovsky took the commission too seriously, as his manservant was primed to jog the composer’s memory two or three days before each commission was due. Although the barcarolle (June) and the troika (November) have become popular, biographer Michel Hoffman has stated that: "the artistic value of the whole remains at a mere ‘calendar art’ level."

Pletnev’s interpretations of The Seasons are most convincing, making this collection at times sound as if it should be in every concert pianist’s repertoire. The well known barcarolle that depicts June (CD 2, track 12) is winningly played with utmost style and control. I particularly enjoyed the haunting loveliness of the playing in the tenth piece, Autumn song representing October (CD 2, track 16), which effortlessly suggests the end of summer warmth to the falling of autumn leaves.

This is all is well recorded with a natural and pleasing sound. Very brief but interesting and informative booklet notes have been provided. Quite astonishing piano playing by the great Mikhail Pletnev. This Virgin Classics double CD set should be in any serious collection of piano music.

Michael Cookson

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