BACH: Italian Concerto in F Major; BRAHMS: Three Intermezzi; MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition; KREISLER: Schoen Rosmarin; KHACHATURIAN: Toccata; NAZARETH: Odeon – Tango Brasiliero – Mordecai Shehori, piano – Cembal d’amour

Another in the thoughtful, excitingly virtuosic recitals that lit the New York stages in the course of 20 years.

Mordecai Shehori – The Celebrated New York Concerts, Vol. 11 = BACH: Italian Concerto in F Major, BWV 971; BRAHMS: Three Intemezzi, Op. 117; MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition; KREISLER: Schoen Rosmarin; KHACHATURIAN: Toccata; NAZARETH: Odeon – Tango Brasiliero – Mordecai Shehori, piano – Cembal d’amour CD 187, 65:51 (2/19/17) [] ****:

Culled from various New York City concert venues, 1982-2003, the assembled recital by Mordecai Shehori embraces a variety of national styles within a decidedly Romantic sensibility. Shehori opens with Bach’s virtuosic Italian Concerto in F Major, BWV 971, a one-instrument concerto that achieves the effect of the two-manual harpsichord while synthesizing strict counterpoint, playful ritornelli, and sonorous tuttis in the course its often antiphonal progress. The performance (from Merkin Concert Hall, 22 May 1986), enjoys a beguiling intimacy in the face of its brilliant intent, as a stunning, optimistic vehicle, especially in its outer movements. Shehori’s middle movement, the d minor Andante, projects a steady, flowing cantilena over a basso ostinato. The flexible line absorbs a fluent trill into the evolving line, lyrical and heatedly poignant.

Shehori proceeds with more understated passions, in the Three Intermezzi, Op. 117 (1892) of Johannes Brahms (from Weill Recital Hall, 12 June 1991), compositions set in ternary, song form that the composer regarded as “old bachelor music.” The first, in E-flat Major, bears a preface from a Scottish lullaby called “Lady Anne Bothwell’s Lament,” and the drooping figures capture tears surrounded by a consoling, rocking motion. The middle section, in the tonic minor, emphasizes the mournful sense of resignation. The most famous of the set, in b-flat minor, expresses the autumnal, rainy-day sensibility in late Brahms. Chains of arpeggios surround a descending, two-note motif. The third, in c-sharp minor, bears a mood not so alien to Kurt Weill’s Weimar Germany. An emotional bleakness pervades this chromatic work, which the middle section cannot dispel. Shehori’s sonorous bass tones belie the anxious cheer in the top line.

The Viennese connection finds a salon (encore) in Fritz Kreisler’s Schoen Rosmarin, played (from Alice Tully Hall, 2 May 2002) with pert sentimentality and a dash of humor by Shehori. His various rhythmic tugs and pulls engage the audience with that happy combination of grace and wit that defines the Kreisler style. Shehori grants us (from Alice Tully Hall, 14 June 2003) a tango by the prolific Ernesto Nazareth (1863-1934), who himself played the piano at the Odeon movie theater in Rio de Janeiro. Heitor Villa-Lobos once described Nazareth as “the true incarnation of the Brazilian soul.” An amalgam of Chopin, Joplin, and Afro-Brazilian folk impulses, the music has a quirky, infectious energy that sweeps us away, much as if Gershwin were knocking us over with some ravishing stride.

Two Russians make their appearance in this recital: the Toccata in e-flat minor by Aram Khachaturian (1932) comes to us from Weill Hall from 6 June 1989.  In some four-and-one-half minutes, Khachaturian takes us on a grueling but lyrical ride that involves four-beat rhythmic  units that accelerate unmercifully and shift their harmony by way of thirds and fourths.  Shehori then negotiates block chords and triplets with no mean facility to transition to a central Andante espressivo whose left hand motifs ripple with Armenian energies. A repeated note takes us back for the da capo, and the concluding flourish elicits the appropriate enthusiasm from the audience.

The other Russian, Mussorgsky, provides the major work on this recital. His Pictures at an Exhibition (from 92nd Y, 27 January 1982), a perennial favorite of Shehori’s mentor Vladimir Horowitz, comes to us in the 1886 edition amended by Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. Shehori himself comments on his editorial approach to this oft-performed score:

The most glaring difference between the first printing and those that followed involve the movement “Two Jews-One Rich the Other Poor.” In the first edition the interval before the last unison is a dissonance: B-flat in the right hand clashing with C in the left hand.

This dissonance fits perfectly the mood of movement as seen from Hartmann’s painting. It is somber and sad and not a caricature of a pompous rich Jew and a pleading wining miserable poor one as always played.  I am convinced that anyone who performed or transcribed this movement as a musical caricature never saw or studied the paintings. All the paintings, including the Great Gate of Kiev, are stylized and self contained, realistic and subtle since Hartmann was mainly an architect.  When a musician is lucky enough to have lyrics or in this case actual paintings that inspired the composer it does not make any sense to ignore them.

Concerning the Great Gate of Kiev when the choral appears first time the 1886 first edition indicates “Senza Espressivo”  the second time it is “sempre espressivo.”  Again it is a wise indication to create impression of development and expansion. However in modern editions it says “Sempre espressivo” twice. Like in many so called Urtext editions there is a committee that most often decides that Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin and in this case Mussorgsky made mistakes when parallel passages have different expression indications.
Another erroneous tradition (tradition = often the mistakes of previous generations) is to play the Promenades as North Korean military march. How can it be a march with alternating 5/4 and 6/4?

In fact I played it as a mood setting device for each picture, either by continuation or by contrast and as an illustration of Mussorgsky’s “large” physique, following Mussorgsky’s own words to Statov:  written on 12 June 1874, he describes his progress:

“My dear généralissime, Hartmann is boiling as Boris boiled—sounds and ideas hung in the air, I am gulping and overeating, and can barely manage to scribble them on paper. I am writing the 4th No. — the transitions are good (on the ‘promenade’). I want to work more quickly and steadily. My physiognomy can be seen in the interludes. So far I think it’s well turned…”

Besides musical description of his round physique, the use of the 5/4 and 6/4 indicates an unsteady movement; and the melodic pattern, which reverses itself, indicates walking forward and backwards as to spend more time with individual paintings.

Shehori, thus, as is his wont, makes us re-think an old masterpiece in terms of the personal intimacy between the musical and visual representations to which Mussorgsky responds. The impression of the epic spiritual journey as a salon expression lends a beguiling mystique to the experience, and the novel and often audacious dissonances that appear assume a more intense luster. When the “Promenade” transforms into a kind of Dies Irae among the Catacombs, we realize how paradoxically the prophet can claim that “in the midst of life we are in death.” Lest readers assume that Shehori’s dynamic has subsumed itself in the service of the small recital space, simply catch his Baba Yaga and The Great Gate of Kiev to dispel any thoughts of Lilliput. Shades of Simon Barere voluptuously glide, sizzle and even purr into the final pages, more in the spirit of the line from Omar Khayyam, that “you yourself are Heaven and Hell.”

—Gary Lemco

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