Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881) Pictures at an Exhibition
(1874) [33:34] Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Fantasie in C major, Op. 17 (1836-38) [30:52]
Paul Lewis (piano)
rec. November 2010, February 2014, Teldec Studio, Berlin HARMONIA MUNDI HMC902096 [64:43]
Until now most of my experience of the playing of Paul Lewis, whether on disc or live, has been limited to Beethoven and Schubert. I’ve been consistently impressed by his work in that repertoire so the opportunity to hear him in music by other composers was too good to miss.
Schumann’s Fantasie in C major is a remarkable composition. The first of its three movements bears the initial marking Durchaus phantasisch und leidenschaftlich vorzutragen which may be translated as ‘To be played extremely imaginatively and passionately’. In a letter to his beloved Clara he wrote that the first movement ‘is probably the most passionate I have yet written … a deep lament for you.’ It is surely significant that the music includes a phrase borrowed from Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte: at this time, faced with her father’s implacable opposition, marriage to his beloved Clara must have seemed a distant prospect. Paul Lewis catches the mood from the outset, realising expertly the headlong, romantic sweep of the music. When, briefly, the passionate tide of music eases and we reach the ImLegendenton section (4:52) there is, for a moment, greater simplicity in the music, which finds an echo in Lewis’s playing; this is an excellent contrast after the richness of the opening. This long first movement can seem a freewheeling piece though actually the music is quite tightly constructed around the thematic material. Lewis handles the changes of tempo or from one episode to another very convincingly. In the short Adagio sections he uses rubato and skilfully places and weights chord or individual notes in a way that reminded me of his similar prowess in Schubert.
The second movement uses march-like dotted rhythms and projects confidence, at least on the surface. The Etwas bewegter section (3:25) serves as a trio and Schumann’s music seems strangely disjoined at times. In the following scherzando section that leads to the return of the march material Lewis ramps up the energy again. Once again I admire his ability to navigate the twists and turns of Schumann’s invention. The final movement is marked Langsam getragen. Durchweg leise zu halten. So much of this movement requires quiet playing, the dynamic rarely rising above mf. It’s almost as if Schumann were simply musing to himself. Lewis is highly sensitive and beautifully controlled throughout and, as the composer intended, the few instances where the dynamics are loud really stand out. This seems to me to be a highly successful and involving reading of the Fantasie.
Pictures at an Exhibition places many demands upon any pianist who would play the work. For one thing, there are considerable technical challenges. More significant, perhaps, is the requirement quickly to establish the mood of each fairly short piece so as to convey to the listener the imaginative content of each Picture – a demand which may be heightened if the listener has not actually seen the pictures by Viktor Hartmann (1834-1873) which fired Mussorgsky’s imagination. There’s an additional challenge, though this is not posed by Mussorgsky himself: that’s to banish from the listener’s mind memories of the colourful orchestrations that several hands, most notably Ravel, have visited on the piano original.
However, as I listened to this admirable performance by Paul Lewis a rather strange thing happened. To be sure, the strength and fantasy of his playing made me concentrate on the work as a piano piece yet there were a number of instances when his performance also made me recall how Ravel had caused the music to sound and I admired afresh Ravel’s genius in re-imagining Mussorgsky’s music.
Mussorgsky demands a wide range of tone and colour from his pianist. On the one hand there are several instances where huge, deep tone is required: ‘Catacombs’ and ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’ are the most obvious examples. Elsewhere dexterity, finesse and lightness of touch are the order of the day: ‘Ballet of the unhatched chicks’ and the bustle of ‘The marketplace in Limoges’ spring readily to mind in that connection; in both of these there’s admirable energy. Paul Lewis is the master of both extremes. He also depicts the strange, grotesque world of ‘The Gnome’ very vividly, managing expertly the swift switches between powerful chords and agility. I like the subtle air of mystery that he brings to ‘The Old Castle’, shading the music very well. In ‘Bydlo’ the tread of the oxen is heavy and suitably cumbersome yet the tone is never forced.
In ‘Catacombs’ Lewis makes the most of the pauses. In his hands this piece is very imposing and rather threatening. Then he goes on to deliver a very atmospheric account of ‘Cum mortuis in lingua morta’, a very strange variant on the Promenade material. There’s great dynamism in ‘Baba yaga’ and in the central Andante mosso section of this piece, Lewis generates a most effective suspense. The control that he exerts in ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’ is most impressive. It would be all too easy to launch this thunderously out of the link passage from ‘Baba yaga’ but the opening is only marked forte. So while he makes the music suitably grand you sense he’s holding quite a bit in reserve, conscious that there’s quite a long way to go. The senza espressione passages are delivered just as marked and then comes the apotheosis of the hymn (3:42) and it’s immediately clear that Lewis has indeed been husbanding his resources. There’s now a wonderful deep sonority and the ending is terrifically imposing. This is a fine and very satisfying traversal of Mussorgsky’s art gallery.
Both performances are presented in very good studio sound. There’s a useful booklet note.
Some three years ago I reviewed a set of recordings by Paul Lewis of piano works by Schubert and I concluded by saying: “This well rounded recital … confirms the credentials of Paul Lewis as one of the leading pianists of his generation … This distinguished release demands the attention of lovers of piano music.” In truth, those comments could equally apply to several more Lewis discs that I’ve heard in the intervening period and it’s certainly true of this impressive disc. I would particularly like to hear this splendid British pianist go on to record more Schumann and, indeed, some Brahms.
A new disc from Paul Lewis is an exciting event, and I jumped at this Pictures expecting insight, sensitivity and surprises, similar to what I found in his Schubert and Beethoven. It’s there, sort of. He approaches the Promenades very sensitively, without any of the brashness or look-at-me persona of some pianists. That’s to be welcomed: it’s an indication of the thoughtfulness of his approach. The eclectic variety, from which this suite derives so much of its appeal, is clearly evident in Lewis’ playing, and that comes through in lots of the effects that he achieves. There is a beautifully languid spell over The Old Castle, for example, and The Marketplace at Limoges is suitably frantic. I liked the tension in the middle of Baba Yaga’s movement, and the end of the Great Gate of Kiev reaches a suitably grandiose climax. In other movements, however, my high expectations of Lewis weren’t quite met. My spine didn’t tingle in the darker passages of Gnomus, and Bydlo began too loudly so that it didn’t have enough room to grow. Likewise, I didn’t feel there was enough of a swagger or contrast to Goldenberg and Schmüyle, and the Catacombs weren’t as spectral as I might have hoped for. They’re all very expertly played but, for me at any rate, that magical X-Factor didn’t show up quite often enough.
It was, to my surprise, the Fantasie that caught my imagination much more. The first movement contains music of turbulent passion, and Lewis captures brilliantly the kaleidoscopic, phantasmagorical opening, through which a melody just about emerges. This is impressionistic playing of rippling intensity and surging sensuality, the rapid transitions and mood-swings reinforcing this as a work of Schumann's turbulent courtship. It swings from one passion to another, and it’s easy as a listener to get completely caught up in it. The second movement combines grandeur with anarchic playfulness and, if the third movement restores some, very limited, decorum then the finale’s final minutes have a wonderful air of passion fulfilled, goal achieved.
It’s all great playing and, in the end, a very good disc, but not for the reasons I was expecting.