INKPOT#61 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: MUSSORGSKY Piano Works, incl. Pictures at an Exhibition. Ogawa (BIS)
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures from an Exhibition
(from handwritten manuscript)Coronation Scene and Polonaise
from Boris Godunov
Prelude (Dawn over the Moscow River)
Dance of the Persian Slave Girls (Act 4, Sc.1)
Prelude to Act 4, sc 2
The Banishment of Prince Golitsyn
Fair Scene and Gopak
from Sorochintsy Fair
NORIKO OGAWA piano
BIS Records BIS-CD-905
by Johann D’Souza
Modest-ly speaking, Mussorgsky was not really known to be an experienced musician. However we are told that he was a competent pianist, having taught himself with little instruction from Balakirev, both members of The Five. (I have full respect for pianist-composers – because they write the most difficult pieces as well as the most sublime pieces for the piano). Mussorgsky did not really compose a wide selection of pieces in his short life of 42 years, but many of his works are dearly remembered.
Mussorgsky (right, painted in his final year by Ilya Repin) suffered from psychological problems and alcoholism. It is surprising, but I am now in full belief that you have to be mentally unstable, depressed, and/or turbulent in order to compose works of great inspiration. Eg. Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.6 and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.2, Shostakovich as well as Schumann, and even the painter Van Gogh.
It was a time of great Nationalistic fervour in Russia and many composers were writing pieces based on Russian folk music. This CD is dedicated to a myriad of pieces from this time and covers a wide spectrum of Mussorgsky’s music. Understanding Nationalism is vital if one is to appreciate the music of Mussorgsky. Many composers wrote dances, operas and programme music inspired by their homeland’s history, legends and landscapes of their native land. Titles like the Russian Easter Overture (Rimsky-Korsakov) , Karelia (Sibelius) and Slavonic Dances (Dvorak) all speak of this.
In these revolutionary times, musical compositions could symbolise nationalist yearnings and sometimes stirred audiences to violent political demonstrations. In the opening piece on this disc, the Coronation Scene and Polonaise from Boris Godunov, the music begins with a death knell chord sounding in the lower registers of the piano, pounding twice. While it is powerfully struck, I still felt that Japanese pianist Noriko Ogawa still lacked the power that was needed to bring the fortissimo fff to obtain the full exposure that was clearly needed for the chords. Mind you this was a period in Russian history that was marked by violence in the powerful personality of the Tsar. I somehow did not get that impression here.
While technically perfect, Noriko is better in the slower passages of this piece, especially at 5’30” where the slower sections give you a better understanding of the portrayal of the Russian peasant, soldier and aristocrat. Her feminine touch and well drawn-out chords give space and depth to the music, which more than made up for other misgivings which one felt in her interpretation of the work. Also, I felt that the sound of the piano seemed a bit too distant, something found in many BIS recordings.
The Prelude (Dawn over the Moscow River) from Khovanshchina is rather impressionistic in nature, and seems to have had its makings in the Debussy Preludes. After hearing the first two pieces I kind of felt that I managed to recognise Mussorgsky’s style but this piece is quite a bit different until the chordic sequence returns and you once again recognise Mussorgsky. By this time one tends to get a firm feel for the Nationalistic spirit, especially by the markings which are heavily steeped towards massive crescendos and fortes. However it is in the shorter segments of the Prelude to Act 4 Scene 2 where there are quieter moments that I think Ogawa excels. One tends to feel that she shares some of the Russian spirit in her playing through her sensitive phrasing and neat articulation (she is Japanese). Her contrasting colour in her diminuendos make this a joy to listen to.
All of my recordings of Pictures at the Exhibition are played by men – Richter (Sofia “live” recording), Ashkenazy, Pogerelich’s recent recording on DG (437 667-2) and Barry Douglas’ “live” recording at the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition on RCA (easily the best “live” recording I have ever heard). I have to admit that I feel I come from a somewhat biased stance. There is one disc which was issued by DG two years ago of a performance by Lilya Zilberstein (437 805-2 – deleted) that did change my impressions of this piece played by a woman. Here’s another.
Ogawa takes a very cautious Promenade in the opening despite the markings being “Allegro giusto nel modo russico, senza allegrezza poco sostenuto” (Quickly, strictly, in Russian mode, without cheerfulness, a little sustained) and I somehow felt that this impression did not leave and actually set the tone for the entire set of music. In Gnomus, her neat articulation and strict time was clearly enforced. A bit of a disappointment was the short third Promenade which while marked “moderato non tanto pesamente” gave the same impression as the opening Promenade without any contrast. This was also felt in the fifth Promenade, taken at a rather laborious pace. However it is in the fourth Promenade marked “Tranquillo” that greater feeling is felt and that sense that Ogawa was slowly becoming more at home with the piece.
Her slower passages in Samuel Goldenberg und Schmuyle is mixed with contrasting expressions compared to how Richter or Pogerelich took it – with more brute force and energy which never lets up. Another section which I felt failed to create any sense of expectation was the bridge between Limoges and Catacombae which is marked by a powerful fortissimo chord. This was a bit of a disappointment from the lack of strength, wherease the Russian men power away with the force of a titan, as needed here.
Another stark contrast is the pace of the last two movements, The Hut on Fowl’s legs (or “Baba Yaga’s Hut”). Richter and Douglas pound away at those mammoth chords with great discipline, and the breakneck speed which is slightly lacking in Ogawa’s approach. However this is slightly reversed in The Great Gate of Kiev when her pace I felt was just right as opposed to Richter’s gazelle-like antics. However, Ogawa’s chords are not given the depth of character as performed by Douglas. Still, her pedalling is highly commendable in the finale, often lost in the barrage of chords.
While this is an interesting disc overall for the many works of Mussorgsky, I feel that Ogawa’s Pictures at an Exhibition is better taken in parts rather in its entirety. A highly recommended version would be that by Barry Douglas (International Tchaikovsky Competition Volume 2: The Great Pianists – RCA 74321-52959-2).
293: 14.9.98 Johann D’Souza