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Hyperion Records

CDA67896 - Musorgsky: Pictures from an Exhibition; Prokofiev: Visions fugitives & Sarcasms
Moscow by John Bratby (1928-1992)
Private Collection / Photo © Christie's Images / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: December 2011
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: February 2013
DISCID: 630F7429
Total duration: 65 minutes 58 seconds


'An ideal blend of fidelity to the score with a subtle and distinctive rather than overbearing musical personality. In the Musorgsky everything is as musicianly as it is technically immaculate. What tonal delicacy and translucency in ‘Tuileries’, and listen to his finesse in the tremolandos at the end of ‘Con mortuis in lingua mortua’, something barely audible and coming as it were from a great distance. Yet in the more weighty numbers … there is power without brutality so that what so easily can degenerate into a mere uproar is so finely graded that you forget the essentially percussive nature of the writing. In Prokofiev’s Sarcasms, too, there is a leavening of the composer’s violent and leering gesture against the Russian establishment but never at the expense of the title. Again, in the Visions fugitives there is the finest possible sense of ‘things flying past’ with a stunning reminder in the Feroce of No 14 of Osborne’s superb technique. Returning to the Musorgsky (the chief offering in this recital), this may well be the most lucid and musicianly Pictures on record. Hyperion’s sound and presentation are beyond praise' (Gramophone)

'Throughout this enthralling and warmly recorded performance, Osborne maximises colour and atmosphere, yet manages to achieve a freshness of approach without recourse to idiosyncratic mannerisms. Every movement is brilliantly characterised as a result of Osborne's imaginative approach to keyboard texture … playing that is not only vivid but also beautifully poised' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Osborne strides out with healthy determination in the opening Promenade, and then gives a superb performance that shows how atmospheric Musorgsky’s maverick piano writing can be. Rarely have the Catacombs sounded so eerily haunting as they do here; rarely have the technical oddities of the Great Gate of Kiev been harnessed to such imposing effect, architecturally grand but with a range of tone that makes the tumult of bells and the Russian Orthodox incantation fix a vivid, poignant, multifaceted image. In between, Osborne has the sensitivity and inspiration, not to mention the pianistic resources, to bring each of the pictures to life in a way that has palpable perspective and subtle characterisation' (The Daily Telegraph)

'I have no reservations whatsoever about Osborne's performances of Prokofiev's Sarcasms and Visions fugitives. This is playing of total clarity, with real percussive force whilst avoiding any ugliness of tone, rhythmically terse and stylistically very much in keeping with Gilels' or indeed Prokofiev's own surviving accounts. For a modern version of these rarely heard works, Osborne provides powerful and persuasive interpretations, with contrasts clearly brought out between Prokofiev's silken melodies and moments of absolute repose as contrasted with some of the most violent and virtuosic piano writing of the first half of the last century. The recording is fabulous and David Fanning's programme notes are of the high quality which we have come to accept as standard from Hyperion' (International Record Review)

'This all-Russian album is a fine example of Osborne's versatility. He paces Musorgsky's great suite faultlessly, never forcing anything but ratcheting up the excitement notch by notch until it's all discharged in a sumptuous account of the final Great Gate of Kiev … Osborne is suitably laconic and severe in Prokofiev's Sarcasms, gentler and more suggestive in the Visions fugitives; both are beautifully judged' (The Guardian)

'Musorgsky’s cycle turns up here, resplendently startling, cobwebs blown off, on his latest release for Hyperion, the classy independent label that Osborne has been recording and winning prizes for since 1998. From the beginning you sense Osborne’s dynamism and fresh imagination: I can’t recall when I last heard the introductory Promenade sound so purposeful. But the best jewels reside in the picture segments themselves … the technical challenges of the cycle’s last movements (Catacombs, Great Gate of Kiev and all) bring plenty of virtuoso excitements, vividly captured in the recording. And the accompanying Russian items are well chosen: first, Prokofiev’s Sarcasms, early exercises in the grotesque, then his generally gentler Visions fugitives—brilliant descriptive titbits, dextrously and poetically displayed … visit this exhibition with Steven Osborne; you’ll enjoy it much more' (The Times)

'Osborne's magisterial performance of 'Pictures' … the experimental Prokofiev pieces are dazzlingly done' (The Sunday Times)

'This glorious new recording … is a colossus of a disc and a superlative production from the Hyperion Records team. The depth, breadth and sonic splendour of the disc make it a defining recording of a piano classic. There are many recordings of Pictures, but this one is special … a vintage Osborne performance' (Sunday Herald, Scotland)

'[Visions fugitives] Osborne gives the finest recorded performance I know' (Limelight, Australia)

Musorgsky: Pictures from an Exhibition; Prokofiev: Visions fugitives & Sarcasms
Promenade 1  [1'17]
No 1: Gnomus  [2'48]
Promenade 2  [0'51]
Promenade 3  [0'25]
Promenade 4  [0'50]
Promenade 5  [1'15]
Tempestoso  [1'56]
Allegro rubato  [1'10]
Smanioso  [2'09]
Precipitosissimo  [3'37]
Lentamente  [1'01]
Andante  [1'10]
Allegretto  [0'47]
Animato  [0'58]
Molto giocoso  [0'23]
Con eleganza  [0'24]
Pittoresco  [1'47]
Comodo  [0'57]
Ridicolosamente  [0'48]
Con vivacità  [1'08]
Assai moderato  [0'54]
Allegretto  [0'29]
Feroce  [0'55]
Inquieto  [0'51]
Dolente  [1'23]
Poetico  [0'58]
Lento  [1'48]

Steven Osborne has become one of the most valuable pianists recording today. His recent complete Rachmaninov Preludes release was critically acclaimed as the greatest modern version since Ashkenazy. Now he turns to further cornerstones of the Russian repertoire in this recording of Musorgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition (a work which has been in Osborne’s concert repertoire for many years), and two sets of Prokofiev’s miniatures.

Musorgsky’s masterpiece is one of the most popular programmatic works of the 19th century. Yet it is also a great pianistic challenge, with the spectacular textures of the climactic movement ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’ requiring the highest technical accomplishments.

David Fanning writes of Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives: ‘Prokofiev supplies snapshots of his 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.’ Osborne’s subtle, yet brilliant use of colour and characterization makes him the ideal performer of this set. Sarcasms—as befits the title—is an experimental, provocative work, performed by Osborne with biting humour.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
’Woe to orphaned Russian art’, declared Modest Musorgsky in the summer of 1873. His friend, Viktor Hartmann—an aspiring architect, designer and painter—had just died of an aneurysm in his late thirties, and Musorgsky had lost one of his companions-in-arms in the search for something radically new and authentically Russian in the arts. Vladimir Stasov—the man of letters who in May 1867 had coined the term ‘The Mighty Handful’ for Musorgsky and four of his fellow-composers of nationalist persuasion—mounted a memorial exhibition of Hartmann’s designs, watercolours and drawings, most of them produced during the artist’s trips abroad. And it was this occasion that prompted Musorgsky to compose one of the most original and challenging works in the piano repertoire and to dedicate it to Stasov.

Pictures from an Exhibition (for some reason the common mistranslation of Musorgsky’s ‘from’ as ‘at’ has proved hard to dislodge) was composed rapidly in the first three weeks of June 1874. It consists of musical representations of eleven of Hartmann’s works, six of which have been preserved in various archives and can be seen in a number of modern re-publications of the work (the ‘Two Jews’ were originally two separate paintings). In a Preface to the first publication of Pictures, Stasov left helpful descriptions of each object, which are all we have to go on for those since lost. That edition, which appeared in 1886, five years after the composer’s death, came with emendations by Rimsky-Korsakov; and it was from this well-meaning but somewhat bowdlerised version that Ravel made his famous orchestration in 1922. Publication in Musorgsky’s original form had to wait until 1931.

To help assemble his ten ‘pictures’ into a coherent musical ‘exhibition’, Musorgsky decided to depict himself, too, as if walking from one display to another in various moods, in a series of what he called Promenades. The first of these is styled additionally ‘in modo russico’, presumably because of its changing time signatures and folksong motifs. After this sturdy introduction the composer as it were rounds a corner and finds himself confronted by the first object on display, ‘Gnomus’. According to Stasov, this was a design for a grotesque nutcracker, in the form of a dwarf on deformed legs and with huge jaws. A chastened form of the Promenade then ushers in ‘Il vecchio castello’, depicting a troubadour singing over a drone bass in front of a medieval castle.

A renewed confident stride brings us quickly to ‘Tuileries’, which represents children squabbling and playing in the avenues of the famous Parisian gardens. With no intervening Promenade, ‘Bydlo’ depicts a Polish ox-cart on huge wheels, to which Rimsky-Korsakov made one of his most cavalier amendments, changing Musorgsky’s initial fortissimo to pianissimo, perhaps with the idea of the cart slowly approaching and receding, rather as in the Funeral March of Chopin’s B flat minor Sonata with its similar implacable harmonic foundation. Then a Promenade in the piano’s higher register anticipates the quicksilver humour of the ‘Ballet of the unhatched chicks’, a response to one of seventeen Hartmann illustrations for the ballet Trilby, with choreography by Petipa and music by Julius Gerber (the scene was apparently danced by children of the Imperial Ballet School, their arms and legs protruding from egg-shell costumes). Again without a break we move into ‘Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle’, a conflation of two portraits made during Hartmann’s visits to Sandomir, Poland, depicting a rich and a poor Jew. Musorgksy’s original title was for long suppressed, presumably because it provided an uncomfortable reminder of the casual anti-semitic attitudes he shared with large numbers of the Russian aristocratic intelligentsia of the time.

At this point the pianist has to take a deep breath, because the rest of the work plays without a break, and its technical demands steadily increase. A texturally enriched version of the opening Promenade introduces ‘Limoges, the market place’, subtitled ironically ‘The Big News’ (Musorgsky’s crossed-out annotations concern chit-chat over a runaway cow). After this fuss and bother, we are plummeted into the ‘Catacombae’ beneath Paris, coming face to face with an ancient Roman burial-ground (the second part of this memento mori, in which the Promenade theme appears beneath chilling tremolandos, had no title in the original). The ghoulish vein is developed with a musical depiction of Hartmann’s design for a clock in the form of a ‘hut on fowl’s legs’, titled ‘Baba Yaga’ after the evil witch of Russian folklore. The cycle is crowned by a grandiose aural realization of Hartmann’s design for ‘The Bogatyr Gate in Kiev’ (better known as ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’). The Bogatyrs were medieval warrior-nobles, and Hartmann’s gate, which was never actually built, was to have featured a bell-tower in the shape of a gigantic helmet—clearly the inspiration for Musorgsky’s spectacular, tintinnabulating textures.

For composers from Schubert to the present day the attractions of the piano miniature have been broadly similar. It has a better-than-average chance of being taken up by young or amateur players; it therefore stands a better-than-average chance of being published; for the composer-performer it fits snugly into recital programmes, where it may serve as an advertisement for and introduction to other compositions; and it may provide a useful testing-ground for compositional ideas, prior to their potential deployment in more demanding large-scale forms.

In their various contrasting ways, the twenty miniatures that make up Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives display all those qualities, and they have always been among the most popular of his piano pieces. The title of the collection is a poetic rendering of the Russian Mimolyotnosti (literally ‘things flying past’, or more pretentiously ‘transiences’) from the poem ‘I do not know wisdom’ by the symbolist Konstantin Balmont. Taking his cue from the lines ‘In every fugitive vision / I see whole worlds: / They change endlessly, / Flashing in playful rainbow colours’, Prokofiev supplies snapshots of his 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.

The Visions were assembled between 1915 and 1917. In his 1941 autobiography Prokofiev claimed that No 19 reflected the excitement of the crowds at the time of the February 1917 Revolution (which deposed the tsar—the more famous ‘October’ Revolution, establishing Bolshevik rule, followed later the same year). But that claim may be a case of self-reinvention aimed at a Soviet readership. Without that information, the same could as easily be said of Nos 4, 14 and 15. In 1935 Prokofiev made recordings of ten pieces from the set, and his playing is notable for its wistfulness, subtle shadings and—in places—rhythmic freedom. Even the clowning of the Ridicolosamente No 10 is rather shy in Prokofiev’s hands, and the delicacy he brings to the following piece brings out its affinities with Debussy’s Minstrels.

Standing rather apart from the salon pieces, Impressionist evocations and fairy tales that make up the bulk of early twentieth-century piano miniatures, there are also some that have their sights set more on innovation and experiment. Prokofiev himself gave one of the earliest performances of Schoenberg’s Three Piano Pieces, Op 11 (1909), and Bartók’s uncompromising Burlesques (1908–11) and Allegro barbaro (1911) enjoyed considerable notoriety at the time. Prokofiev’s own Sarcasms, composed between 1912 and 1914, are more or less in this mould, and they are certainly among his most experimental works before his period of self-imposed exile from 1918.

No doubt there was an element of image-consciousness here, too, right from the beginning. Prokofiev revelled in the controversy provoked by his more extravagant compositions and performances. In 1941 he reflected on the fifth Sarcasm, perhaps again with a degree of hindsight: ‘Sometimes we laugh maliciously at someone or something, but when we look closer, we see how pathetic and unfortunate is the object of our laughter. Then we become uncomfortable and the laughter rings in our ears, laughing now at us.’ But there is no need to take these compositions too seriously. Equally plausible is the response of the noted Russian virtuoso Konstantin Igumnov to the same piece: ‘This is the image of a reveller. He has been up to mischief, has broken plates and dishes, and has been kicked downstairs; he lies there and finally begins to come to his senses; but he is still unable to tell his right foot from his left.’

David Fanning © 2013

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