Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition, Schumann - Fantasie
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Label: Harmonia Mundi
Cat No: HMC902096
Number of Discs: 1
Release Date: 12th January 2015
ArtistsPaul Lewis (piano)
In 1870, the architect, sculptor and painter Viktor Hartmann (born in 1834) was invited by Vladimir Stasov, the most influential Russian art critic of his time, to join the ‘Group of Five’, a St Petersburg-based circle of composers that, in addition to Mussorgsky, included Borodin, Balakirev, Cui and Rimsky-Korsakov. The members of this ‘Mighty Handful’ had set themselves the spiritual task of establishing a national Russian music free of western influences.
Just three years later, in August 1873, Hartmann died of an aneurysm. He was not yet 40. ‘What misfortune! O greatly suffering Russian art!’ wrote the deeply affected Mussorgsky, lamenting the loss of his friend. Along with Stasov, he championed the cause of a memorial exhibition in honour of his intellectual fellow-spirit.
Stimulated by this much-admired retrospective, in the spring of 1874, which presented some 400 pictures from different phases of the artist’s creative career, Mussorgsky decided to erect a musical monument to the dead man as well. He threw himself feverishly into the work. When the piano cycle was completed on 22 June 1874, the manuscript bore the inscription: ‘Dedicated to Vladimir Vasilievich Stasov. Pictures at an Exhibition. In Memory of Viktor Hartmann'.
Mussorgsky created here something subtler and more ambivalent than Hartmann’s paintings might suggest.
Alongside the dazzling virtuosity they call for, Paul Lewis’s unexpected coupling reveals the purely musical qualities of these two 19th-century masterpieces.
1Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition: Promenade. The Gnome.
2Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition: Promenade. The Old Castle.
3Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition: Promenade. The Tuileries Gardens.
4Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition: Bydlo
5Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition: Promenade. Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks.
6Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition: Samuel Goldenberg und Schmuyle
7Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition: Promenade. The Marketplace in Limoges.
8Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition: The Catacombs.
9Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition: With the Dead in a Dead Language...
10Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition: The Great Gate of Kiev.
11Schumann - Fantasie in C major, op.17: I. Durchaus phantastisch und leidenschaftlich vorzutragen.
12Schumann - Fantasie in C major, op.17: II. Massig. Durchaus energisch.
13Schumann - Fantasie in C major, op.17: III. Langsam getragen. Durchweg leise zu halten.
Before the Fantasie's eventual publication in 1839, Schumann had toyed with calling its three movements Ruins, Triumphal Arch, and Constellation, and although he suppressed these titles, there's an obvious link between the virtuosic 'Triumphal Arch' second movement and the imposing Great Gate of Kiev which concludes Mussorgsky's gallery peregrinations. Both works, moreover, have rather tangential relationships to their supposed programmes (artistic and poetic), so that the performer needs the ability and insight to pursue the musical imagination beyond the purely programmatic.
Lewis is more than equal to the technical demands in both works, and there is no shortage of excitement – in the Gnomus and Baba Yaga movements of the Mussorgsky for example, which are grippingly done. But he is also alive to the purely musical flights of fantasy opened up by each composer. And it's the sheer musicality of his performances that make them so compelling. Yes, the bells ring out thrillingly for the Great Gate as they should, and the oxen lumber along in Bydło; but listen also to the gentle delicacy of the Tuileries gardens or the stunning clarity and agility of the chicks dancing in their shells: this is music-making that combines the greatest thoughtfulness with exceptional vividness. Speeds are on the brisk side, but there's never any hint of rushing, and the pacing is perfectly judged, from the overall narrative sweep right down to the tasteful use of rubato.
In the Schumann, the first two movements are brilliantly presented without resorting to crystalline harshness, but it's the concluding movement, with its indication 'to be kept soft throughout' and the hints at powerful emotions contained beneath its still surface, that best illustrates Lewis' supreme artistry. Like Schubert, both Schumann and Mussorgsky were song composers, and Lewis knows exactly how to sustain the expressive line even in the most challenging passages where other pianists sometimes come too close to the percussive edge.
It should be obvious that these are exceptionally fine performances, combining technical mastery, expressive involvement and musical soulfulness in ideal measure. The dynamic range is wide but realistic, the recording as warm and focused as we've come to expect from Harmonia Mundi. With recent concert performances of Brahms's First Piano Concerto under his belt, the signs are promising for Lewis's continued exploration of the Romantics: this new disc certainly whets the appetite!
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