Classical CD Reviews

MUSSORGSKY: Pictures from an Exhibition; PROKOFIEV: 20 Visions Fugitives; 5 Sarcasms – Steven Osborne, piano – Hyperion

A rather explosive program from British pianist Steven Osborne, who does manage to insinuate a sense of poetry into an otherwise percussively bravura program of two Russians, Mussorgsky and Prokofiev.

Published on February 26, 2013

MUSSORGSKY: Pictures from an Exhibition; PROKOFIEV: 20 Visions Fugitives; 5 Sarcasms – Steven Osborne, piano – Hyperion

MUSSORGSKY: Pictures from an Exhibition; PROKOFIEV: 20 Visions Fugitives, Op. 22; 5 Sarcasms, Op. 17 – Steven Osborne, piano – Hyperion CDA67896, 65:58 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

Steven Osborne’s 17-20 December 2011 recordings of music by Mussorgsky and Prokofiev, as performed on the Steinway and engineered by David Hinitt will endure not as subtle music-making, but as most impressive for Osborne’s drive and digital power. It could be that when pianists decide to inscribe the Mussorgsky 1873 Pictures – his response to Vladimir Stasov’s mounted memorial (in eleven works) to the architect and designer Viktor Hartmann, who had succumbed to an aneurysm before his fortieth birthday – they refer to the famous Sofia performance by Sviatoslav Richter as their Rosetta Stone. The results can be percussive and perhaps mis-representative of the artist’s distinct personality. This is not to claim that Steven Osborne cannot elicit a personal, poetical sound from his keyboard, which he clearly does as early as the second appearance of the Promenade theme. But when he does come down on the keys and pedal, as in Bydlo, the effect can impose a crushing weight on the music, perhaps intentional. In textural contrast, the Promenade then emerges in high register sunlight, at least momentarily.

Light feet characterize the Ballet of the unhatched chicks, set as a scene for Trilby, a piece by Julius Gerber with choreography by Petipa. The rich-Jew, poor-Jew dialogue conveys a heavy-handed wit and stereotypical parody, with the keyboard’s approximation of hauteur and unabashed wheedling, Mussorgsky’s indulging in a bit of “period’ anti-Semitism. The Promenade now in its fifth appearance asserts itself with a military authority, especially in double octaves. With Limoges market-place sensibilities, the music resembles a fiendish toccata whose demands ever increase as the character-sketches proceed. In the midst of life, we are in death: the quicksilver runs vanish as we plunge into the Dantesque depths of the Roman catacombs, which ring with pungent bass chords from Osborne until the opening Promenade itself becomes subject to spiritualization in tremolos, as if the wanderer in the tombs had been painted by El Greco (or Roderick Usher). Crunching power in visceral octaves and mixed staccati dominate the appearance of the folklore witch Baba Yaga, her own harmonies as audacious as those in the Gnomus portrait. The surge of energy from Osborne proves as penetrating and massive as anything in Richter, driving to the “point,” as Rachmaninov would have it, of The Great Gate of Kiev, a bell-tower in the shape of a gigantic helmet, in Hartmann’s vision. In the midst of this regal, tintinnabulating procession a religious chant emerges, Poe’s “The Bells” in their iron and silver incarnations.

More gut-wrenching ensues in the 1912-1914 Sarcasms, which sound like prefaces to or reactions from the G Minor Piano Concerto. I first heard them played by Evgeny Malinin. Osborne’s piano does everything except spit the chords out, his blatant spite in these pieces easily reminiscent of the narrator from Dostoievsky’s Notes from Underground. The Allegro precipitato lunges forth, angry and defiant. Along with developments in Bartok, the opening of the Smanioso piece has to count as among the most antagonist in keyboard literature. Yet, before it ends on an ostinati bass, the upper register emits scintillating sounds of elfin character. The last of the set and the longest, marked Precitosissimo, projects a kind of schadenfroh sensibility that ultimately becomes self-mocking. A gloomy set of experiments, these pieces haunt us long after the final chords die away.

The poetry of symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont provides the impetus for the twenty Visions fugitives of 1915-1917. Few pianists play the entire set, opting like Emil Gilels, to play selected favorites that ask various sounds and textures of the interpreter. The range of emotions – from lyrical to the grotesque – and variety of sheer duration capture Balmont’s lyric that “In every fugitive vision/I see whole worlds. . .change endlessly.” Prokofiev claimed some autobiographical influences at work, such No. 19 depicting the crowds of February 1917 excited to hear of the deposing of Tsar Nicholas II. The famous No. 8 “Comodo” has a persuasive player in Osborne, as does the “Ridicolomente” episode. We hear a softer Osborne in these wry and suavely wrought miniatures, and Osborne’s eminently clear lines offer a richness of color that rivals several of the Debussy preludes for rhythmic compulsion and harmonic daring. The “Feroce,” “Dolente,”and “Con vivacita” pieces point to later developments in the Romeo and Juliet ballet. The “Inquieto” and “Poetico” already contain the seeds we will reap in the late sonatas. The eighteenth selection, “Con una dolce lentezza,” comes as close to Scriabin’s mysticism as the sly  Prokofiev will allow. The last piece, “Lento,” may nod to Medtner more than to other fellow Russians, but its ephemeral angularity has more than a touch of Chopin despite the originality of Prokofiev’s syntax.

—Gary Lemco

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