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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition
[32:38]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Album for the Young
Op.39 (1878) [31:22]
Echo rustique Op.72 No.13 [3:52]
Vladimir Feltsman (piano)
rec. May 2002, Sala Nezahualcóyotl, National University of Mexico
NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI 6211 [67:46]

This recording was previously issued in 2004 by Urtext with the title Russian Souvenir.
 
Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition takes centre-stage pianistically in the programme. Musically it is an excellent CD containing as it does a very good version of the Mussorgsky and a substantial and unusual coupling. I don’t know how Feltsman recorded his version of Pictures but it sounds like a single take rather than several small movements edited together. There’s a feeling of live music making here and the work holds together as a single organic piece. It’s very satisfying.
 
The music is so varied in its journey. The best way of approaching this review is simply to list my reactions to a number of the movements as I listened:
Promenade - Pacey, no nonsense playing that immediately grabs your attention. This moves headlong into: 
Gnomus - great articulation and dynamic contrast. The musical line is really well brought out in the left hand. Wonderful balance.
The Old Castle - suitably mournful but also rather romantic in approach. 
Bydlo - Heavy and awkward, just as the composer intended for this depiction of an ox-drawn cart. Playing as gripping as this makes you forget the euphonium in Ravel’s orchestration. 
Ballet of the unhatched chicks - light, crisp, beautiful playing. Yet again the left hand counterpoint shines through. 
Samuel Goldberg and Schmuyle - the sound here is slightly unfocused at the top end. Doesn’t articulate too well - too much pedal perhaps. 
Limoges - Wow. Dynamic and thrilling playing. As good as any on disc. 
Baba Yaga - More fabulous playing but also very thoughtful and evocative in the central section. 
The Great Gate of Kiev - the opening is a real damp squib but that’s not a reflection on the playing. The piano’s lack of sustaining power makes you long for the orchestral version - put on tin helmet. From 3:30 onwards the virtuosity is staggering - octave runs especially hair-raising. Again, the lack of sustaining power always makes the final bars a huge anti-climax despite the excellence of Feltsman. 
Promenades - a general point. Each promenade is varied in colour, pace, dynamic and tempo. This is no token run-through.
 
To summarise, this is a very fine version. Feltsman doesn’t over-interpret. He communicates with fine musicianship rather than showmanship. A great deal of care and thought has clearly gone into the preparation and I wholeheartedly endorse his recording. It goes into the top end of the list of potential alternatives.
 
Tchaikovsky’s Album for the Young is a series of 14 short pieces, many of which last for less than one minute. This is very undemanding music from the perspective of the listener and the performer. The music is tuneful, varied and charming but to be blunt about it the high level of inspiration to be found in Schumann’s wonderful Album for the Young is sadly missing here. In terms of performance Feltsman does the set full justice and everything is treated with due care and attention to detail.
 
The recorded sound is clear but somewhat washy. The full dynamic range and colour of Feltsman’s playing isn’t perfectly captured. It’s goodish but no more than that.
 
In summary, this is well worth the outlay for the Mussorgsky alone. There’s some great musicianship on show. The Tchaikovsky is merely a pleasant filler.  

John Whitmore 

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

Masterwork Index: Pictures at an Exhibition


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