MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition; PROKOFIEV: Ten Pieces from Romeo and Juliet, Op. 75 – Ilia Radoslavov, piano – Blue Griffin BGR635 (70:28) (11/22 [Distr. by Albany] ****:
Recorded May 2-4, 2022, this familiar program of Russian staples features Bulgarian pianist Ilia Radoslavov, who holds a Doctoral Degree in Piano Performance from University of Wisconsin-Madison. His teachers have included Christopher Taylor, Wilfred Delphin, Stella Dimitrova, Ilya Tchernaev. He also studied with world-renowned Leon Fleisher, Richard Goode, and Ann Shein. This program enjoys the palpable affection of an artist who cherishes this repertory.
Mussorgsky’s 1874 spiritual journey, inspired by the pictorial works of Viktor Hartmann, opens with a “Promenade” (in B-flat Major) theme that at once captures the tread of the composer himself and establishes a ground-motif that transforms itself in the course of the individual portraits. Radoslavov colors his progress, softening some of the pesante dynamic of the martial pace, which quickly startles us with the apparition of Gnomus, in its virtually atonal guise. Radoslavov’s capacity for spacious cantabile makes itself known in The Old Castle in G# Minor, whose troubadour’s song rises in plaints from an antique world. A more stentorian version of the “Promenade” precedes the romping children of the Tuileries, followed by the grim progression, Bydlo, an ox-cart drawn as if bearing the weight of the world. Even so, it “sings in [its] chains like the sea” as it approaches and then passes into the distance. Now thoughtful, the “Promenade” makes its briefest appearance, here in high treble chords, parlando, and then answered in the lower range of the keyboard.
Mussorgsky indulges in some fertile, even cruel, humor in his Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks and the ethnic mockery of Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle, the latter’s sycophancy an echo of the baby chicks, while the rich Jew pontificates, oblivious of all others. The “Promenade” recurs for the last time, at least in tis original form, prior to the juxtaposition of life and death and apotheosis that mark the last four sections. Limoges bristles and bustles with the fervor of the marketplace, a study in graduated and syncopated staccato. The lively energy breaks off dramatically, as Radoslavov thrusts us into Edgar Allen Poe’s world of the sepulcher. Ostinato high treble over a processional bass line indicates an eerie light’s illuminating the catacomb’s skulls in a variant of the “Promenade.” The religious moment becomes virtually sacrilege, as the folklore goblin Baba Yaga makes her flight on a hut of fowl’s legs in space, the accents from Radoslavov especially pungent and his octaves thundering. With the dispersal of the witch, we find ourselves entering something like the Kingdom of Heaven, The Great Gate of Kiev, which architect Hartmann conceived as city gate topped by cupolas. Church chant and the illumined peal of bells mark the ascending progress of this E-flat Major finale, a thoughtfully hued interpretation that bears favorable comparison with renditions by Malinin and Kissin.
Having recently auditioned Prokofiev’s Ten Pieces from Romeo and Juliet (1937) for piano with Bella Davidovich in the Eloquence label reissue, I felt a natural curiosity to hear this new version. The sheer brightness of Radoslavov’s keyboard casts a magical light on the “Folk Dance” that announces the dawn in the city of Shakespeare’s Verona. The runs and galloping figures possess a fertile charm, well translated to the piano from the orchestral medium. The “Scene,” in a parlando-staccato, bears the austerity and hinted menace of the tragic events, nicely etched by Radoslavov. The more tender aspect of the love tale emerges in the “Minuet’s” middle section, soon complemented by the spry naivete of “Young Juliet,” a witty mix of rambunctiousness and latent, thoughtful passion. Frivolity concealing fatal menace marks “Romeo and Mercutio Masked,” a robust dance that marked my own, debut radio broadcast on WHRW-FM from SUNY Binghamton, in the CBS recording by Dimitri Mitropoulos. Radoslavov’s pounding realization drives home the tragic impulse lying beneath the bravado of the two young men.
With the advent of the “Montagues and the Capulets” we feel the seriousness of village rivalries and festering vendettas, the syncopations rife with the tolling bells of impending doom. Radoslavov’s procession resonates with pent up malice, only temporarily softened by the families’ sense of courtly honor and love for their individual children. The conciliatory plainchant of “Friar Laurence’s” characterization does not reduce the tragic irony of his attempt to intercede in the lovers’ predicament. The eternally satiric “Mercutio” sparkles with athletic energy, his rhythmic motions a distillation of much of Prokofiev’s sonata writing of the late 1920s and early 1930s. The coda from Radoslavov rings with impressive authority. A tender moment, “Dance of the Girls with Lilies,” precedes the heart-wrenching “Rome and Juliet Before Parting,” first revealed to me by the late master Dmitry Bashkirov (1931-2021). Radoslavov invokes the night in Verona, from which Romeo had been banned for having slain Juliet’s cousin Tybalt. The bell tones peal in dire, modal harmony before the love-theme sequence evolves, richly harmonized in bass tones. Radoslavov’s keyboard, engineered by producer Sergei Kvitko in Westbrook Auditorium in Presser Hall, Illinois Wesleyan University, proves warmly sonorous.
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