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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures from an Exhibition (1874) [35:47]
Serge PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Sarcasms, Op. 17 (1912-14) [10:35]
Visions fugitives, Op. 22 (1915-17) [19:34]
Steven Osborne (piano)
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, UK, 17-18, 20 December 2011. DDD
HYPERION CDA67896 [65:58]

Steven Osborne continues to impress with a repertoire that seems to be expanding by the day. With acclaimed discs of Rachmaninov, Debussy, Ravel, Britten and Tippett, he now adds his interpretations of Mussorgsky’s masterpiece for piano and two early Prokofiev cycles. All of the performances here should wear very well over time, as Osborne employs his fabulous technique completely at the service of the composers. As David Fanning notes in his excellent discussion of the works in the CD booklet, the title Pictures from an Exhibition is the literal and correct translation of the Russian Kartynki s vystavki rather than the more usual “Pictures at an Exhibition”. The correct translation makes more sense because Mussorgsky selected only certain paintings and drawings from the Viktor Hartmann exhibition.
 
Following the piano score while listening to Osborne’s recording, one will see that the pianist meticulously carries out Mussorgsky’s instructions as to tempo, pedalling, and dynamics. However, more than that, he characterizes each of the movements very well, too. He is especially good when it comes to the lighter pieces, such as Tuilleries, The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks and Limoges. Nor does he lack the power to bring across the bigger sections. His Bydlo is very heavy. One can almost feel the wheels of the ox cart lumbering up the hill. He attacks Baba Yaga with vehemence and follows it with a very majestic Great Gate of Kiev. There are a couple of places where I wish he had departed a little from the literal. The Promenade could be a bit slower and grander, as Vladimir Ashkenazy plays it in his recording. On the other hand, I am happy that he hasn’t distorted this to the degree Mikhail Pletnev did in his travesty of the work. The timing of the initial Promenade for Osborne is 1:17 and for Ashkenazy 1:24, while Pletnev extends it to 1:40. Ashkenazy seems about right to me here. Also he makes more of the bell sounds in the Great Gate of Kiev by striking those notes harder than does Osborne. Overall, though, these are not all that significant. Osborne will be easy to live with and a reading one will want to return to, unlike Pletnev’s which should have been designated as by Mussorgsky-Pletnev since he rarely follows the score, ignores dynamics, over-pedals, adds octaves and completely changes the ending by making it sound like something Horowitz would have done. Osborne presents the work with all due honesty and respect, and one can really appreciate the result.
 
If anything, the Prokofiev works accompanying Pictures are of even greater interest as they are not recorded as often as the Mussorgsky or as his own sonatas. Both Sarcasms and Visions fugitives come from early in the composer’s career, though the latter cycle displays a greater range than does Sarcasms. Many of the Visions fugitives, in fact show the more lyrical side of the composer also evident from his Violin Concerto No. 1. There are twenty of these brief pieces, most of which last a minute or less but contain much that is memorable in such a small space. They all contain tempo indications and explicit markings, though only one, No. 7, has a title, “The Harp”, that describes well the sound of the piece. Taken as a whole, the Visions fugitives contain the whole gamut of emotions from sad and mysterious, to whimsical and boisterous. A few anticipate the composer’s later music, No. 6 containing the germ of his Third Piano Concerto, while No. 10 sounds like the beginning of a dance from Romeo and Juliet. My favorites include the songlike No. 8, the very whimsical No. 11, the rather sad No. 16, marked dolente, and the impressionistic No. 17, marked poetico. Although I have had the piano score in my library for years, No. 16 was the only one I ever actually played - and not all that well, I must say. Osborne leaves nothing to be desired in his journey through the cycle. He captures the mood of each of the brief pieces and, as with Pictures, his virtuosity is totally at the service of the music.
 
Sarcasms, a cycle of five somewhat longer pieces - though the longest is still under four minutes - leaves a rather different impression from that left by the Visions fugitives. These are for the most part percussive, experimental works that sound at times like early Bartók. They contain such indications as tempestoso, smanioso and precipitosissimo. Indeed, they live up to these designations. The last one, marked precipitosissimo, begins with fast pounding chords and then stops with a long pause before continuing quietly with a “sneaky” note progression inflected with whimsy. The piece never recovers its brilliant beginning but just sort of peters out with march-like chords in the bass, ending softly. Fascinating stuff and superbly realized by Osborne.
 
Hyperion does its usual production justice to these scintillating performances. The recording captures the sound of the piano as well as I have ever heard it done. There is a natural warmth, without the instrument being in your face, but with crystalline clarity so that nothing is missed. I followed the scores for both Pictures from an Exhibition and Visions fugitives and could easily tell how rigorous Osborne is in his fidelity to the music as written. The booklet with David Fanning’s exemplary notes has a colorful cover, very Russian, with a painting of a Moscow cathedral resembling St. Basil’s. The only improvement I can think of — and this has been alluded to many times in the past in reviews of Mussorgsky’s masterpiece — would be to include reproductions of the Hartmann paintings that inspired the composer. The music itself, though, is more than enough to depict what visually may be missing.
 
A warm welcome is in order for these remarkable performances.

Leslie Wright