SCHUMANN: Fantasie in C Major; MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition – Paul Lewis, piano – Harmonia mundi

SCHUMANN: Fantasie in C Major, Op. 17; MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition – Paul Lewis, piano – Harmonia mundi HMC 902096, 64:43 (1/13/15) ****:

Compiled from two distinct recording sessions, 2010 and 2014, this rather anomalous pairing of Schumann and Mussorgsky by British virtuoso Paul Lewis (b. 1972) offers some exquisite sonorities in the course of his traversal of two monuments of the Romantic repertory. Each of the pieces bears a series of anagrammatic references to the composers’ personal lives; more particularly, the 1874 Mussorgsky suite, which openly admits his “physiognomy in the interludes.” That the Promenade theme itself undergoes a series of (Lisztian) transformations attests to the cycle’s having become a spiritual journey, a “marriage of Heaven and Hell,” which plumbs the depths of the grotesque and the heights of valedictory and national fervor in its collective tribute to the art of Viktor Hartmann.

Much in the tradition of his eminent teacher Alfred Brendel, Paul Lewis assumes a classical poise and aristocratic distance in these musical portraits, less “illustrative” than digitally fluent etudes in diverse colors and affects. Gnomus, for instance, regains its chopped-off final chord, which signifies the nutcracker’s bite, too often marred by other pianists’ rolled chords. A fortissimo Bydlo presents the huge, lumbering oxcart in its brute physicality. The juxtaposition of the lively Limoges marketplace suddenly and raucously descends, de profundis, into the morbid Roman catacombs, where, as Mussorgsky stated, “the creative spirit of Hartmann lights the skulls from within.” The depths become violently aggressive in Baba Yaga, the low G’s literally competing with a low E for demonic supremacy. The often dissonant explosions of tone clusters certainly rank among the most potent expressions of titanic force uttered by Lewis. Yet his entry into Kiev occurs fluently, almost an anti-climax; then, building slowly, the mass of sound dispels into Russian liturgy which combines with the apotheosis of the Mussorgsky persona, Con grandezza.

Now Lewis juxtaposes against Mussorgsky mythic self Schumann’s 1838 lament for his beloved Clara Wieck, from whom he suffered separation, his C Major Fantasie, with its overt allusions to Beethoven’s song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte. Lewis sheds his own Classical persona to attack the fervent first movement on its own terms, “extremely imaginatively and passionately.” The often syncopated figures and canonic elements ring with dramatic declamation and poetic conviction, undergirded by a ferocious bass line. “Take them, then, these songs I sang like a tender echo,” utters Beethoven. That tender echo resounds in the “one soft note” quoted in the Schlegel poem Die Gebuesche, extolling Clara herself as the beloved who reigns “in the midst of all the sounds in earth’s many-colored dream.”

The dotted rhythms and heady syncopes of the second movement in E-flat Major touch those maerchen elements in the Schumann opera, ingenuous gestures of courtly love and noble sentiments that bravely confront the profane Philistines. The two-octave battle beguiles Lewis, who plays any number of color elements and stretti against each other, staccato or in colossal block chords. The leaping coda, frenetic and obsessive, achieves its own manic apotheosis. Cognizant that the Fantasie appeared as an intended monument to Beethoven, in the last movement Lewis controls his last movement dynamics to allude clearly to Beethoven’s sonata quasi fantasia that perennially invokes moonlight. The affect remains controlled, contoured, vocal, and eminently improvisational in character. “Truth and Poetry,” Goethe’s artistic credo, has triumphed, not as a colossus, but in romantic acceptance, a kiss of peace.

—Gary Lemco

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