Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881) Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) [32:04] Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Jeux d’eau (1901) [5:13] Miroirs (1904-05): Alborada del gracioso [6:02]; La Vallée des cloches [5:56]
Rudolf Firkušný (piano)
rec. 1960 FORGOTTEN RECORDS FR1077 [49:19]
Firkušný recorded Pictures at an Exhibition for DG in 1960, and it’s this – with the Ravel pieces – that’s been restored here. Fortunately this studio inscription has been augmented over recent years by live and broadcast material – notably the 1980 BBC recital (BBCL 4238-2) and one given in Salzburg in 1957 (Orfeo d’Or 633041). Temporally and interpretatively speaking it’s the Salzburg performance that is most consonant with this DG performance. It’s unusual to note that twenty years later, in London, the Czech pianist plays noticeably more quickly and more incisively.
Firkušný’s performance, rooted in colour, articulation, voice leading and precision, evinces a patrician understatement. Never a volcanic extrovert, and never one to meddle textually, his musical resolve is unbroken throughout. Thus he avoids extremes, and employs the pedal with deft circumspection, in a way that may frustrate those brought up on two of the totems of this repertoire, Horowitz and Richter, neither of whom could be accused of hiding their pianistic lights under bushels in this repertoire. Thus there’s no musico-bipolarity in Gnomus, the Promenades retain a refinement of spirit, The Old Castle is more scenic than eerie – no truly nagging left hand accents – and Bydlo doesn’t rock, roll, pitch and sag; rather it sways strongly but without caricature. The Market at Limoges is witty and playful, the Catacombs predictably not especially sepulchral. In Cum mortuis he is, inevitably perhaps, more interested in the pure musical mathematics of the play of colour and tone – and its congruity – than in anything more dramatic. Indeed he makes Pictures sound, for all its awkwardness, unusually pianistic. It’s a performance of scrupulous attention to detail without ever becoming forensic – somewhat reserved, but probing and without ostentation.
The coupling shows his devotion to, and mastery of, Ravel’s idiom. Jeux d’eau is a model of refinement and atmospheric colour, whilst the two pieces taken from Miroirs show comparable virtues. Alborada del gracioso is beautifully textured, and rhythmically vivacious, whilst La Vallée des cloches – taken a minute slower than Gieseking’s famous old recording – is in no way inferior to that performance, simply demarcating a different expressive response.
The excellent transfers come without notes. Admirers of the great Czech pianist will welcome this restoration.