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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers

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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) [33:34]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Fantasie in C major Op. 17 (1838) [30:52]
Paul Lewis (piano)
rec. 2010/14, Teldex Studio Berlin
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC 902096 [64:43]

Paul Lewis has impressed me in his Schubert, and I welcome any opportunity to hear him in pretty much any repertoire he might choose to record. Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition has been done to death, but it is the most marvellous music so allowances have to be made, though I'm sure there must be less well-beaten musical paths to be followed.

This particular release has already been given a double review here, and I find myself once again in the luxury position of being able to follow on from the comments already given and just throw in my extra Eurocent's worth. There are some remarkable highlights in Paul Lewis's Mussorgsky, and the chiming bells from about the third minute of Gnomus alongside the sheer intensity of the rest prove promising. Lewis's gentler side delivers melting pianism in The Old Castle and a delicious lightness of touch around the peripheries of The Tuileries. His 'pesante' in Bydlo has a terrific sense of gravity, but above almost all else you will want to have this version of The catacombs for its Gormenghastly accents and scary gloom. Lewis allows the notes to echo around the inside of the piano with some subtly sustained pedalling, blurring the imagery in its decaying dampness, an effect carried through to Com mortis in lingua morta. Brisk but with plenty of impact, the Promenade sections arrive at a final Great Gate of Kiev which is a mighty but not overblown edifice.

You would have wanted to hear Sviatoslav Richter live in this work, but while his studio recording is available on a budget Regis disc RRC1373 the late 1950s sound is very distant, and the other versions I have encountered all sound pretty antique. I quite like Alice Sara Ott's Deutsche Grammophon recording (review), but she tends towards more languid tempi and is less involving in general when put up against Lewis - the Catacombae more a respectful if awe-struck prayer than a terrifying vision and the slower Promenades tending to sap energy rather than restore it. Vladimir Feltsman on Nimbus NI6211 is strikingly effective in really titanic Russian style, using his piano as a launching pad for some remarkably fearless pedalled effects. Feltsman's Pictures is at times like a radiant icon and at times almost a dramatic caricature - in a positive sense: at least you cannot deny his performance has vast quantities of character, and it is certainly one of his best recordings. Lewis may have the upper hand in some of the subtler corners, but not by a huge margin. In the end it is Lewis's inner contrast and sense of narrative linked to spectacular pianism which tips the balance. It goes to show that there are plenty of highly desirable Pictures at an Exhibition out there.

Robert Schumann's Fantasie Op. 17 is a good, robust coupling for the Mussorgsky, the literary associations in the work continuing a theme of narrative imagery in music. This is another work with plenty of choices available and, looking back at the ones I've reviewed there are those which last because of their sheer musicality, such as Michael Studer, those which are both spectacular and poetic, such as Leif Ove Andsnes, and those which have fallen by the wayside, such as the busy but ultimately rather thinly spread Sergei Edelmann.

Paul Lewis is his own man in this work, taking advantage of the improvisatory nature of the first movement to add a few little moments of surprise, and creating an atmosphere of expressiveness both heated and tender, while managing to avoid sentimental wallowing. The central movement has nobility and a kind of nervy impetuousness at the same time, pushing forward Schumann's persistence with that dotted rhythm in a traversal of moods both defiant and confiding. The final movement is an inspiration which floats in part across from Beethoven, the outer journeys of the previous movements transformed into inner searching, to which Lewis responds with a gorgeous touch - sonorous and filled with colour while retaining that quiet and Langsam getragen atmosphere. Schumann can't help himself coming up for a climax however, and Lewis's changes of colour are something to behold here. I can imagine why my colleagues have pointed to this performance as perhaps the more special of the two works on this release. For all of Mussorgsky's quirky genius, what this really shows is that Robert Schumann at his best was the deeper composer of the two.

Dominy Clements

Previous reviews: John Quinn and Simon Thompson


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