Musorgsky; Schumann

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Musorgsky; Schumann
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Musorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; Schumann: Fantasie in C
PERFORMER: Paul Lewis (piano)


Musorgsky and Schumann may seem very strange bedfellows, their music stemming from completely different traditions. Yet hearing these two great 19th-century piano works side by side reveals closer connections than one might have expected. In particular, both composers grapple with the creative challenge of attempting to marry programmatic inspiration (the visual arts in the case of Musorgsky and poetry for Schumann) with intellectually satisfying musical structures.

Paul Lewis has a natural empathy for Schumann, revelling in the first movement’s impulsive changes of mood and projecting wonderfully calm inner reflection at the outset of the third. He emphasises the cogency of Musorgsky’s Pictures with a performance of granitic strength and wonderful tonal variety. After a brisk and very purposeful ‘Promenade’, he plunges us into the sinister world of ‘Gnomus’ with playing that is boldly dramatic and uncomfortable in its violent dynamic contrasts. He is similarly effective in delineating the world-weary trudge of ‘Bydlo’, the grotesque musical imagery of ‘Baba-Yaga’ and the spectral writing of ‘Cum mortuis in lingua morta’, the latter’s insistent tremolos executed far more idiomatically than in many other recordings. Also impressive is his handling of ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’. Whereas others produce a massive quasi-orchestral sound from the outset, Lewis is comparatively restrained, carefully building up the intensity and thus making the final triumphant climax of pealing bells all the more effective.

Perhaps some of Musorgsky’s lighter movements, such as the ‘Ballet of Unhatched Chicks’, could have been projected with greater whimsy and charm, and the recording sounds a bit bright-edged for the piano’s upper registers. But these are minor reservations when considered against the overall excellence of this release.


Erik Levi