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Modest Mussorgsky
Pictures from an Exhibition
Serge Prokofiev
Sarcasms, Op. 17; Visions fugitives, Op. 22
Steven Osborne (piano)

Review By Max Westler


  There are two classic recordings of Mussorgsky's Pictures that belong in every collection. The first, not surprisingly, is Vladimir Horowitz's live Carnegie Hall performance from 1951, the most incisive of his three recordings of the work. Typically, Horowitz amplified the score to better suit his prodigious capabilities, and his performance is an incendiary demonstration of shock and awe that bristles with wit, subtlety and expression. Sviatoslov Richter made at least three studio recordings of the work, all worthy; but the one that shocked the world (and established his reputation) is his live performance from 1958 in front of a Bulgarian audience that seems to be suffering from whooping cough. (Amazingly, Richter's performance transcends those distractions: after a minute or two you only hear the music.) He's more impulsive and rapturous than Horowitz and generates a fierce, galvanizing momentum that sweeps all before it.

I mention the recordings by Horowitz and Richter not because there aren't other versions that, if not quite on that same level of inspiration, are worth hearing (Andsnes, Bronfman, Pletnev, for example), but because you can bet that every young pianist approaching this work for the first time knows and must somehow reckon with their achievement. For some pianists this means trying to equal or surpass Horowitz and Richter, to play even faster and louder. This can turn Pictures into an occasion for virtuosic display, into mere exhibitionism. The most egregious examples of this approach are Kissin and Ashkenasy, but there are many others, less notable, who are just as guilty. The problem is, of course, that Horowitz and Richter do more than play fast and loud. It's gradations of tempo and shading that help to make those performances great, not just manual dexterity.

Steven Osborne is one of our most accomplished and consistently satisfying young pianists; and in his new recording of the Pictures, his self-effacing virtuosity is completely at the service of the music. If anything, Osborne's tempos are consistently slower than the norm. He seems to understand that Pictures is not just a tribute to Mussorgsky's friend Viktor Hartmann an aspiring architect, designer, and painter, who died of an aneurysm in his thirties but a celebration of the transformative power of art. When we first encounter the spectator in the opening promenade, he is very much foursquare, gruff, brusque: the world is too much with him. But as he moves from one picture to the next, we sense him growing, changing from within. The final tableaux, the famous "Great Gate at Kiev," is not just a literal representation of Hartmann's design for a bell-tower in the shape of a giant helmet, but a psychological portrait of a soul enriched, enlarged by the experience of art. Osborne's great achievement here is to present Pictures as a whole, as a unified dramatic arc.

His slower tempos, wide dynamic range, and subtle use of color allow him to both fully characterize and sharply differentiate the individual pictures. For Osborne, the pictures are more than miniature narratives. They become a kaleidoscope of highly contrasted emotional states that, taken together, represents the full range of artistic expression: the menacing gnome and the romanticized nostalgia of the medieval castle; the giddy play of the children in the garden and the dire effort of the trudging oxen; the slapstick of the unhatched chicks and the all too worldly business being conducted by Goldberg and Schmuyle; the stillness of the catacombs and the diabolic frenzy of the witch. The most moving contrast is the one I've already mentioned: the spectator burdened and self-conscious as he enters the gallery, and the spiritual release he experiences at the end.

In his guise as concert pianist, Prokofiev promoted the difficult and dissonant music of his day: he routinely programmed Schoenberg's Three Pieces and Bartok's Allegro barbaro, for example. The rarely performed and recorded Sarcasms is his response to those influences; and for its ten minute duration it's as disruptive and in-your-face as anything Prokofiev ever wrote a deliberate provocation that must have unsettled, if not unhinged, the conservative audience he played it for. Here Osborne's astonishing virtuosity is on full display, and his two-fisted playing (appropriately) feels like an assault. As David Fanning says in his notes, the Visions fugitives "supplies snapshots of [Prokofiev's] most characteristic moods sometimes grotesque, sometimes incantatory and mystical, sometimes simply poetic, sometimes aggressively assertive, sometimes so delicately poised as to allow the performer and the listener to make up their own minds." None of these nineteen miniatures lasts more than two minutes, but that doesn't stop Osborne from seizing on every expressive opportunity. He makes a full meal out of what other pianists serve up as hors d'oeuvres.

Over the years Hyperion has consistently produced some of the best piano recordings available, and Andrew Keener's spacious acoustic is easily up to that high standard. I've never heard the bass of a Steinway registered with such heart-stopping fidelity.

Every month seems to produce a tidal wave of new recordings of the Pictures; and at Fanfare, that magazine "for serious record collectors," there's even a critic who's been tasked with the nearly impossible job of keeping pace. Of late he's been a very busy man. I have to admit that I haven't kept up. The only recent performance of the work I've heard is a very dispiriting one by the otherwise talented Alice Sarah Ott. (Maybe she should put her shoes back on.) But if you're in the market for a new recording of the work, I dare say you won't do better than Osborne. The generous bonus of the Prokofiev works, superbly performed and of demonstration-quality sound, make this new recording an easy recommendation.





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