Imaginary Pictures = MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition; SCHUMANN: Carnaval, Op. 9 – Kirill Gerstein, piano – Myrios multichannel SACD MYR013, 63:08 (6/10/14) [Distr. by Allegro] ****:

Pianist Kirill Gerstein, in his liner notes, claims that his rationale for yet another survey (rec. November 2013) of these two keyboard staples lies in “the game of exploring meanings.” Perhaps one key to the connective context between Schumann and Mussorgsky can be found in Gerstein’s inclusion of the Sphinxes movement (No. 9), often elided by contemporary pianists and would-be acolytes of Schumann’s interior world. The musical pillars of long notes that indicate “the little scenes on four notes” embrace Schumann’s town of Asch and anagrams for his own name and that of his motif for Fraulein von Fricken, his erstwhile love interest. Mussorgsky’s Promenade, with its “biological” relation to the composer’s earthly tread through the Viktor Hartmann exhibit of paintings, may well take its present character from Schumann’s example.

Given the glut of comparatively wonderful performances of Mussorgsky’s 1874 suite – those of Richter, Schirmer and Janis might well suffice – Gerstein’s account proves resilient and well paced, sensitive to the harmonic and dynamic adjustments required after Mussorgsky juxtaposes certain character sketches against the transformative grund-gestalt of the Promenade.The speedy passages, like the Limoges, achieve a blistering toccata effect. This hectic sequence scales upward to the Catacombs, whose “Roman” chords intone a dark chorale that gradually illuminates the spirit with an arrangement of the grotesque Gnomus character. Having interchanged the sacred and the profane, Mussorgsky blurs the line between fact and fantasy in the torrential Baba Yaga sequence: the same folk quality that drives Bydlo, the Polish ox-cart’s mundane power, assumes a fiercely aerial quality in the racing octaves and gripping, bell-like chords of the Witch’s Hut on Fowl’s Legs. Mussorgsky then transcends his place and time at his Great Gate of Kiev, the Promenade theme’s enjoying a monumental apotheosis in which Russian doxology reveals of vision of Heaven, resonant with those same bells that ring for the coronation of Boris Gudonov.

Gerstein’s survey of Schumann’s interior “masked ball” pays conscientious homage to the impressive cast of characters, real and imaginary, who inhabit the composer’s Davidsbuendler. The juxtaposition of temperament captures Gerstein’s fancy: martialfairy tale elements play against wistful waltz sequences, gentle musings against aggressive, passionate displays of feeling. Simple lied forms confront diabolic virtuoso effects. The complacent, well-fed, pampered bourgeoisie must endure the impactof the visionary, idealistic artist. Gerstein plays Schumann always with dominant affect: nostalgia, the nostalgia-for-the-dream.Eusebius must convey the same affect as Traumerei in the Kinderszenen. Florestan invokes the composer’s own Papillons, theallusion to social as well as natural butterflies. Does anyone note a corollary for those dancing “four notes” and the “Fate” motif inBeethoven’s Fifth Symphony? Paralyzing stasis and virile motion, feminine and masculine personae: yet another series of contraries unified in Schumann as bursts forth in the Lettres dansantes, with their “pregnant,” feminine character.

After Chiarina, Chopin himself assumes an androgynous air, especially as Gerstein plays attaca to the composer’s portrait. The masculine energy returns in full force first in Pantalon, then in the savagely blurring lines from Paganini, who interruptsa self-satisfied German dance with bristling, demonic bariolage. The German dance returns, rather dazed, in a nervous da capo.For Aveu and Promenade, Gerstein applies a selective rubato that provides that bit of schwung in Schumann’s rhetoric. Another “pregnant” Pause catapults us into the world of poetic irony, where all opposites collide and merge. We feel Gerstein throw hisshoulders back and lay into the March of the Davids-Leaguers with renewed faith in the justness of their cause. The counterpointsmark the cosmic converge of contrary energies, the ultimate transfiguration of those little kernels of poetic potential, which Beethoven had “taught” Schumann, supplied the source of all creative motion.

Piano sound, courtesy of Stephan Cahen and Kirill Gerstein, shone through on Bose and Sony headphones.

—Gary Lemco