Mussorgsky
Pictures at an Exhibition
Prokofiev
Sarcasms, Op.17
Visions fugitives, Op.22
Steven Osborne (piano)

Recorded 17, 18 & 20 December 2011 in Henry Wood Hall, London
CD No: HYPERION CDA67896
Duration: 66 minutes
Reviewed: March 2013
Steven Osborne’s tour of Mussorgsky’s Exhibition begins with a brisk stride into the gallery to immediately invigorate at the beginning of a bold and purposeful interpretation. This is a terrific version, colourful in its descriptions of the Pictures and at times daring in choice of tempos. Osborne’s virtuosity is beyond doubt, and the clarity he brings to the music is remarkable, with the voicing in ‘Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle’ particular well crafted. His vision of ‘The Old Castle’ is slow and deeply reflective, while the heavy machinery of ‘Bydlo’ grinds into action with a great heave before disappearing into the distance; after which, with Osborne employing an extremely wide dynamic range, the solemn fourth appearance of the ‘Promenade’ is barely audible. Meanwhile the dazzling array of notes in ‘Limoges’, the market place heaving and bustling, is brought to an abrupt halt by the stern ‘Catacombae’, and the whirlwind ‘Baba Yaga’ leads into a stately ‘Great Gate of Kiev’, where Osborne’s keen attack is most impressive.
Coupling Mussorgsky with early Prokofiev is a shrewd move. The twenty pieces of Visions fugitives are the work of an impetuous young man that demonstrate a short attention span but also the flowering of a precocious talent, reminding us of the lasting influence of Mussorgsky on 20th-century Russian composers. It is particularly satisfying to follow the work’s progress of these incisively observed and concentrated character pieces. Osborne evokes the twirl of a ballerina in the eleventh (‘Con vivacità’), while the seventh, ‘Pittoresco’, is beautifully restrained. The slightly melancholic edge to the ninth (‘Andante tranquillo’) is touching, while the note clusters and syncopations of the fourteenth (‘Feroce’) are powerfully wrought, appreciating Prokofiev’s use of the piano as a percussion instrument as well as one capable of expressing lyrical beauty.
In Sarcasms these qualities unfold over slightly larger structures, and there is a greater sense of experimentalism, which Osborne successfully conveys. This is evident in the third piece (‘Allegro precipitato’), its motoric figurations giving way to bittersweet lyricism in the central section, and in the last of the five (marked ‘Precipitosissimo’!), which is like several miniatures in one, the chords hammered out at the opening giving way ultimately to an ultra-quiet repose. The clumps of soft but gruff chords, two minutes in, offer a sudden and unexpected intimacy, the composer deep in thought.
This is a vibrant and brilliantly played release that offers a fresh and stimulating version of the Mussorgsky. David Fanning's booklet note maintains that “for some reason the common mistranslation of Musorgsky's 'from' as 'at' has proved hard to dislodge”, and so Hyperion goes with “from” in its presentation – and adds a further conundrum to a composer whose surname is open to conjecture in terms of spelling. Osborne’s Prokofiev complement is much appreciated and very rewarding, so if Hyperion could let him loose on the piano sonatas... that could be quite something.

 

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