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MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition. RAVEL: Valses Nobles et Sentimentales.    Ivo Pogorelich (piano) Deutsche Grammophon 437 667-2 [61’58"]
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Often, when confronted by performances of familiar repertoire which differ radically from traditional interpretations, critics suggest that recordings should avoid incorporating idiosyncrasies which, although they may have artistic validity within a ‘live’ concert, may irritate upon repeated hearings. This superbly-engineered CD provides a good example of why I would suggest that the reverse is more often the case, in that a listener experiencing these unconventional performances once only in a concert hall might be so disorientated by their originality that the overall impression of the playing remaining after the recital could be one of undisciplined experimentation, whereas the opportunity to study these interpretations repeatedly via a recording allows one to adjust to the pianist’s personal approach to the music: not all musical compositions can be appreciated fully on first hearing, and neither can all performances.

Pogorelich has already given us an astounding version of Gaspard de la Nuit on CD. In his reflective and meditative approach to Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, the deserted-ballroom atmosphere of the eighth waltz is extended backwards to infiltrate the mood of most of the preceding seven. The unsynchronised chords and rubato of the first waltz remain distracting to me even after repeated hearings (throughout the cycle, Artur Rubinstein’s direct yet sensitive recording on RCA demonstrates that it is not necessary to distort the waltz rhythm so fussily in order to characterise the music) but elsewhere one senses that every chordal balance and gradation of phrase has been selected after meticulous consideration in this unusually nostalgic and brooding vision of Ravel’s work. One should not attach too much importance to Pogorelich’s liberties with dynamics and tempi, as the editions always used for recordings of Ravel’s piano music are themselves not entirely faithful to the composer’s intentions anyway: it is a pity that copyright difficulties prevented Peters Edition from issuing an urtext version of Valses Nobles et Sentimentales in their excellent newly-edited Ravel series, as bars 31-34 of the fourth waltz were modified by the composer after publication, yet here, as always, the standard Durand edition reading of this passage is recorded.

Pogorelich is up to date in his choice of edition for Pictures at an Exhibition, with many textual details restored to Mussorgsky’s intentions, of which the loud opening of Bydlo is only the most obvious. Apart from some discreet reinforcement of the bass at the climax of The Great Gate of Kiev, this recording is faithful to Mussorgsky’s keyboard layout although some inspired changes in dynamic inflections may mislead some listeners into believing otherwise: ironically, many other artists, whose more bland performances of the work appear on the surface to be more literal than this one, alter Mussorgsky’s text freely without acknowledging their own contributions, assuming that this is justified on the grounds that, supposedly, the composer did not know how to write idiomatically for the piano (on the contrary, the testimony of Mussorgsky’s contemporaries confirms that he was an accomplished pianist).

Small details in Pogorelich’s interpretation leave me perplexed: the rhythm in Gnomus at 0’19" is so distorted as to alter the time signature from 3/4 to 4/4; likewise, Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle is played in 12/8 rather than 4/4 at 0’41"; the rubato in The Old Castle is at odds with the deliberate monotony which Mussorgsky seeks as appropriate to the grey desolation of the scene being invoked; and the elongated pauses at the start of The Hut of Baba-Yaga prevent the movement from gaining momentum until the opening bars are past. Putting caveats aside, one finds major insights on offer elsewhere, not least the startlingly-effective control of a dry texture in the middle section of Baba-Yaga at 1’10". All other performances of Bydlo sound hopelessly superficial next to Pogorelich’s, which is monumentally lumbering, disintegrating at the end into a remarkable pianissimo, and the Ballet of the Chickens in their Shells (with an extra repeat included here which is often not played) emphasises playfulness rather than the exaggerated ‘humour’ which is so desperately predictable in other performances.

Catacombae forms a well-judged prelude to a profound realisation of Con mortuis in lingua mortua which has no parallel in the performing tradition of this movement: the right-hand tremolo is played as a hypnotic slow oscillation, and the control of nuance on display throughout this movement will be appreciated particularly by listeners who are themselves professional pianists. These two pictures take 7’12" alone and the sense of stillness they produce is so moving that, as the end of Con mortuis approaches, one wonders how it will be possible for Pogorelich to continue with the remaining two pictures at all. He provides a dignified view of The Great Gate of Kiev: often pianists play this too slowly, forgetting that whilst such a tempo can be sustained convincingly in the orchestral arrangement by Ravel, it will not necessarily work well on the piano. Although slow, Pogorelich’s account of this movement is successful because his tempo is consistent with his spacious conception of the work as a whole (over 42 minutes) and because even the simple block textures are nurtured here with a degree of pianistic refinement which eludes other pianists who are usually preoccupied, trying to make a simplistic ‘big effect’. Nevertheless, the bass string rattling noisily on Pogorelich’s piano at 5’52" indicates the colossal power emanating from the instrument - genuine power too, rather than standardised ‘virtuoso’ noise.

Readers who believe that there is nothing new to be discovered about these two frequently-played works should listen to this CD. Pogorelich is by no means as controversial an artist as he is portrayed: it is simply that his intellectual awareness leads him to re-examine established performance traditions, and it is inevitable that his consequent redefinition of artistic parameters should be regarded as ‘controversial’ by pedantic commentators to whom the status quo is sacrosanct. After repeated hearings, positive-minded listeners are likely to consider these two revelatory performances to be amongst the most thought-provoking versions ever released on disc.

See also book review:
PFITZNER's PALESTRINA - The 'Musical Legend' and its Background by Owen Toller


Raymond Clarke




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