Tchaikovsky
The Seasons, Op.37b
Mussorgsky
Pictures at an Exhibition
Barry Douglas (piano)

Recorded 16 & 17 February 2018 in Cedars Hall, Wells Cathedral School, Somerset, England
CD No: CHANDOS CHAN 10991
Duration: 76 minutes
Reviewed: December 2018

Barry Douglas's “Tchaikovsky Plus One” project is a personal homage to Russia (he famously won the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1986), and the “great masterworks of the Russian repertoire”. It's an enterprising idea, new juxtapositions stimulating new comparisons. The present first volume offers a snapshot of Tsarist days three-quarters of the way through the nineteenth-century: Mussorgsky, the magician of Stasov's Mighty Handful, wrote Pictures at an Exhibition in St Petersburg in 1874; Tchaikovsky, the master of Moscow, completed The Seasons between 1875 and 1876. Here intimately personal, there boldly public, taking image, illusion and descriptive documentary as a starting point, Mussorgsky's landscape is raw, savage even, his ideas framed in a pianistic tongue like no other. Tchaikovsky's is the cooler, more refined voice, lyrically beautiful, his keyboard writing cultivated and grateful. Mussorgsky, a burning Promethean force, sends one reeling; Tchaikovsky, nuances of perfumed, remembered autobiography, invites embrace.

Douglas has always had the measure of this music even if his mercurial, razor-edge Mussorgsky has yet to be caught ideally by the microphone. To my mind his 1986 RCA recording – a glossy, aggressive account, quicker than this Chandos re-make – was particularly disappointing. Without aspiring to the immediacy of his recent Schubert Sonata cycle, he takes us here on a journey that engages the attention only variably. I found myself transported by the poetry, ice and fantasy of 'Con mortuis in lingua mortua', but disenchanted by the mechanics of virtuoso execution elsewhere – rushing chicks, rattling old women, oddly shifting tempos in ‘Bydlo’ (nice, though, to have the autograph fortissimo at the start, not Rimsky's piano alteration), a forcefully pushed ‘Great Gate of Kiev’. I wondered, too, at a few of the gaps between the tableaux – for example the hurried entry into and exit out of ‘Goldenberg and Schmuÿle’, running the risk of ordinariness. ‘Baba-Yaga’ borders on the breathless, the pulse and note-values less than hairpin-timed. Wanting overall, to my mind, is the colour and personality of Douglas's 'live' encounters.

Tchaikovsky's Seasons (each month titled pictorially) starts well, the evocative confiding of the music, the changes of mode, delicately poised. June and October have a certain charm, the sound of a piano floating across a distant garden. But when the going gets brilliant, technical efficiency rather than story-telling sets in, a sense of getting through the notes rather than into them, the phrasing hastening (July). In something like November, racing the studio clock comes to mind – the smoky nostalgia of Rachmaninov yearning this piece, a full minute slower (April 1928), is nowhere to be found.

 

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