Piano Works by The Mighty Handful
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition [35:26]
César CUI (1835-1918)
Nocturne in F sharp minor, from Op 22 [6:14]
Alexander BORODIN (1822-1887)
Scherzo in A flat [3:23]
Petite Suite [20:33]
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Scherzino in A, from Op 11 [1:09]
Romance in A flat, from Op 15 [1:42]
Waltz in C sharp, from Op 15 [3:33]
Mily BALAKIREV (1837-1910)
Islamey, Oriental Fantasy [8:55]
Philip Edward Fisher (piano)
rec. 25-26 August 2010, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, UK
CHANDOS CHAN 10676 [80:51]
Philip Edward Fisher offers us an accomplished, elegantly-played collection of piano music by ‘The Mighty Handful,’ the five nationalist Russian composers who were central to that nation’s romantic tradition. Not every composer is represented equally, of course; Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition stands aside a nocturne by César Cui, for example, and three tiny miniatures by Rimsky-Korsakov. But the Pictures are part of a very well-kept gallery, and a generous one too, with 81 minutes of music!
Pictures is the beginning work, and Fisher’s is a polished, lyrical account, with a suitably massive, luxurious instrumental tone. His way with the quieter, more contemplative scenes is well worth hearing, especially the nocturne atmosphere of the ‘Old Castle.’ Still, one wonders if there’s something maybe too tender about this, especially in a nigh-symphonic ‘Great Gate of Kiev’ which stretches out to six full minutes: I can’t help but think back to the wildness and untamed energy of Alfred Brendel’s Vox reading. Now, before anyone writes in to the editors saying, “there’s been a mistake, ‘wildness’ and ‘Alfred Brendel’ have been used in the same sentence,” go give his 1955 Vox recital (also included: Islamey and the Three Movements from Petrushka) a listen. Brendel rather slays the ‘Gnomus’ and wakes the dead of the catacombs, to be sure, but his ‘Ballet of Unhatched Chicks’ teeters thrillingly on the edge of the unplayable, and the reading as a whole is unsubtle but undeniable fun. Fisher is many things, and he is better in movements where Brendel’s mad dash gets the better of him, but wild he is not.
This suits Fisher very well indeed in the rest of the program. The works by Cui, Borodin, and Rimsky-Korsakov are all miniatures probably intended for performance at home, and designed to give the casual listener maximum pleasure-per-bar. Actually, Borodin’s Petite Suite is, despite its name, fairly serious and substantial, stretching to 20 minutes: its seven movements include two mazurkas and a concluding nocturne, and the opening tone-picture of bells in a cathedral is surprisingly austere and harmonically adventurous. The mazurkas are rather reminiscent of Chopin, delightfully so, but the nocturne is something very special indeed. It stands on a level above the rest of this material, one of Borodin’s most gorgeous and distinctive slow movements. The way the main theme (which is, in a way, its own splendid accompaniment) reappears at 1:33 is a touch of poetic genius on the part of both composer and performer. The trimmings by Cui and Rimsky-Korsakov, as pretty as they are, have nothing on this. Note to Philip Edward Fisher: this nocturne is your signature recital encore. Make it your calling-card. With familiarity it must grow even more ravishing; imagine Ivan Moravec or Martha Argerich playing it!
The grand finale is Balakirev’s Islamey, of course. Here, though, Fisher’s emphasis on getting the notes right means that he restrains himself, perhaps too much; I don’t want sloppy playing, of course, and those infinite repeated notes are incredibly difficult, but it must be possible to bring out a little more color, a little more willingness to push one’s tempos and rattle about. The recording process, with its ability to produce absolute technical perfection and a level of polish unimaginable years ago, sometimes encourages artists’ inhibitions. If I could I would tell Fisher to drink a Red Bull, stretch, look away from the score, and set down Islamey in one take.
Still, I am indebted to this release for an introduction to the Borodin nocturne from Petite Suite, for the excellent liner notes (including an essay by Fisher), and for 81 minutes of pleasure in the company of the Mighty Handful. It might be easy to imagine a Richter, Gilels, or Brendel getting through the program in a little less time, but as a whole, and especially given the diversity of the voices presented, this disc is very much worth any piano lover’s attention. If the choice of cover art seems odd, by the way, be apprised that it is one of the original ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’: Viktor Hartmann’s Catacombs of Paris.
A good survey, not your new favorite ‘Pictures’ but the miniatures by Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov and especially Borodin are very good.