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Modest MUSSORGKSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) [32:20]
Sergey RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)
Prelude in C sharp minor Op.3 No.2 [4:13]
Prelude in C minor Op.23 No.7 [2:21]
Prelude in G Op.32 No.5 [3:15]
Prelude in D minor Op.23 No.3 [3:44]
Prelude in G minor Op.23 No.5 [3:56]
Prelude in E flat Op.23 No.6 [3:15]
Prelude in B flat Op.23 No.2 [3:28]
Sergey Schepkin (piano)
rec. New England Conservatory Jordan Hall, Boston, USA, 30 July 2005 (Mussorgsky); 13 January 2002 (Rachmaninoff)

Experience Classicsonline

I was rather taken with a phrase coined by a fellow reviewer when writing recently about this pianist’s performance of Bach: “the Schepkin effect”. I suppose I would summarise this as the performer’s ability to intrigue, confront, annoy and delight depending on the mood of both the listener and the player caught on the wing. I read Dominy Clements’ review of the Schepkin Well Tempered Clavier Book I after struggling for some days with how to start this review. I find I need a single idea or image to help me launch a review and then the rest follows. But this disc has had me flummoxed – it is passionately perverse, idiosyncratically individual, and compellingly powerful. You the reader will have to decide whether this sounds like a performance that would interest you and whether you find yourself susceptible to the Schepkin effect!
Although now a naturalised American citizen Schepkin was born in St. Petersburg and his playing is unmistakably Russian in its heritage and technical address. Both of the groups of works recorded here are central planks of Russian Romantic piano literature and as such have been recorded by all of the great pianists. So there is the inevitable question; do we need another recording of either of these works? To answer that briefly: the Mussorgsky receives a deeply personal interpretation and as such, if this chimes with your own performance ideal, this will prove to be a compelling experience. The Rachmaninoff is more interpretively ‘main-stream’ and excellently performed though these Preludes are the fact that this is a selection and less individually presented oddly counts against them.
But back to the red meat of the Pictures at an Exhibition. Schepkin contributes a fascinating and well-written liner-note – only discussing the Mussorgsky mind, not a word about the Rachmaninoff – where he berates other performances for taking liberties with the original form and text of Mussorgsky’s score. It’s a valid argument well made. Most people’s point of entry for this work is the Ravel orchestration and brilliant though it is Ravel did follow the prevailing attitude of the time that Mussorgsky didn’t always write what he meant and that angularities of form and harmony ‘needed’ to be smoothed out. Only in recent years have the original versions of Boris Godunov and other works become accepted as definitive. Schepkin writes; “the cycle’s philosophical essence is often jettisoned in favour of the decorative ‘salad russe’ aspect as celebrated by Ravel’s orchestration”. Going back to the original piano score it is remarkable how bald and sparse much of the writing is. Take the very first Promenade. Apart from a rather extended tempo indication and an initial given dynamic of f – loud – there is nothing else at all. And this is exactly how Schepkin plays it. At first listening this is undoubtedly disconcerting; rather than a gentle amble around a favourite picture gallery it sounds like an angry stride around some modern art “installation”. It would be very easy to dismiss this performance as wrong but it is so patently how it appears on the page that you are forced to address your own preconceptions. So definitely one up for the pianist here. But then performance perversities immediately do appear. Treating the original score as the authentic source, why does Schepkin then distort the initial rhythm of Gnomus every time it occurs? Instead of the written six equal quavers (1/8th notes) – he extends the first of the six and then rushes the next two. Perhaps this does add to the grotesqueness of the musical picture but it rather quickly dispels the moral high ground of ‘honouring the original intention’ that the liner and opening movement imply. Schepkin also has the tendency to allow tempi to shift to the point where whole beats can be dropped – again I find this irksome when purity/simplicity of execution is the elevated ideal.
In his note Schepkin makes another very good point that the recurring promenade music sub-divides the cycle into miniature pairings of contrasting music so perhaps the agogic distortions of Gnomus are deliberately exaggerated to highlight the flowing continuity of Il vecchio castello. It is in this movement that Schepkin’s ability to play with a beautiful extended lyrical line is first clearly demonstrated. The Mussorgsky original is again devoid of nearly any expressive markings but the marking of the main melody as espressivo legitimises Schepkin’s tasteful phrasing. Taking Schepkin’s conception of linked pairs of movements representing opposing aesthetics then some of his performance choices – which might seem extreme in isolation – begin to have a logical sense. Try the pair of No.3 Tuileries set in opposition to No.4 Bydlo. In both instances Mussorgsky gives the performer almost no direction except for a basic tempo indication and the barest minimum of dynamics. Schepkin is very good in No.3 at delineating the children at play – indeed technically throughout he is untroubled by any of the apparent awkwardnesses in Mussorgsky’s piano writing. This is the movement about as close to a Mendelssohnian Scherzo that Mussorgsky ever came. Schepkin chooses a steadier tempo than many but after all is only marked Allegretto ma non troppo but then Bydlo explodes in a heavy lumbering representation of an ox cart. If you are used to the carefully graded crescendo/decrescendo of Ravel’s treatment and the subtle orchestral scoring this will seem unrelentingly harsh. Yet reference to the score again shows that Schepkin is being utterly faithful to the letter of the music and as a consequence of this the music feels more modern and certainly more demanding of the listener. You can’t help but think of the famous Vaughan Williams’ comment apropos his own Symphony No.4 which I paraphrase here; “I’m not sure if I like it, but it’s what he meant”. Perhaps this is a moment to mention the recording; the piano is caught closely miked and there are passages where I feel that some of the dramatic harshness of the performance – clearly a deliberate choice given the mellifluous technique displayed elsewhere – is amplified by the engineering. Certainly there are passages when I think the piano itself is being knocked out of tune by the sheer forcefulness of the playing. There are moments when I feel a lighter touch – in spirit more than technique – would allow the music to be more playful. The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks No.5 is a case in point and to that list I would have added No.7 The market at Limoges but again when consulting the score you have to say that Mussorgsky clearly marks this as being mainly f or even ff with many additional accents. Certainly the bustle of the market becomes hectic and aggressive when played like this but yet again I have to defer to the letter of the score and reconsider my ‘standard’ preconceptions. Both Baba Yaga and the famous final Great Gate of Kiev are played with clangorous power. Schepkin deliberately plays these movements with harsh unrelenting power – Baba Yaga in particular is more the stuff of nightmare than folk-legend when played like this and all the more exciting and compelling for it. Likewise, the over-lapping tolling bells and Orthodox chants of the Great Gate seem especially atmospheric when they resound and clash as here. So ultimately a revelatory and challenging version of a work one would think you know well. Mussorgsky laid bare in all his unflinching often harsh glory.
The Rachmaninoff Preludes date from sessions three and a half years earlier. Given the previously-mentioned absence of notes in the liner and the relative brevity of the selection it is hard not to reach the assumption that this is very much the filler music. Since the disc runs to just fifty-six minutes in any case it is a shame that this selection was not expanded or indeed one of the books of preludes included complete. It is always a pleasure to hear any of these marvellous works and Schepkin is an authoritative and sure-fingered guide. After the searchingly individual Mussorgsky these are much more ‘traditional’ in their approach even down to opening the group with the best known of all; Prelude in C# minor Op.3 No.2. What I do like very much throughout is that Schepkin does not overlay the inherent romanticism of the music with excess spurious rubati. He is content again to let the music on the page speak for itself. It is because Rachmaninoff gives far more directions to his performers that the result seems less ‘bald’. Schepkin’s huge technique tosses off these terrifying works with no apparent strain – there is something of the Michael Ponti approach here with the fast passages almost brusque and dismissive. I must admit I’ve always rather enjoyed that style of playing although I know some find it too inflexible and emotionally detached. But by now you will know if this disc tempts you or not and to be honest it should be purchased for the Pictures not the Preludes. There are many fine recordings of the Rachmaninoff and whilst this is the equal of many I think few would argue that it offers the same revelatory insights for the curious listener that the Mussorgsky does. But as a judicious and intelligent selection that is well balanced and performed with a big personality and technique it is hard to beat. I imagine that Schepkin is a compelling pianist to see live and it is always a pleasure to hear a performer able to throw new and valid light on popular established repertoire. Certainly a pianist with a point of view and musical personality that demand serious attention.
Nick Barnard

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