Musorgsky • Prokofiev

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COMPOSERS: Musorgsky; Prokofiev
LABELS: Hyperion
ALBUM TITLE: Musorgsky • Prokofiev
WORKS: Musorgsky: Pictures From An Exhibition; Prokofiev: Sarcasms; Visions fugitives
PERFORMER: Steven Osborne (piano)


It’s easy to assume such a well-worn favourite as Musorgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition will make an impact simply through its sheer originality and bold invention. But this is not the tactic adopted by Steven Osborne. Throughout his 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. Note for example the careful balancing of the hands in ‘Gnomus’ with greater emphasis placed on the lower notes, darkening the texture and intensifying its sinister nature. Likewise, the powerfully articulated chords that accompany the melody in ‘Byd√o’ have a weightiness that conveys both the creaky wheel movement of the worn-out ox-cart and the world-weary despair of those pulling the vehicle. At the opposite end of the dynamic spectrum, Osborne overcomes the potential problem of monotony in the obsessive drone bass of ‘The Old Castle’ by employing a slightly veiled tonal colouring that makes the movement sound bewitching and hypnotic. There’s plenty of charm and humour in the ‘Ballet of the unhatched chicks’ delivered here with mercurial lightness of touch and Osborne relishes the opportunity for deploying exaggerated musical gestures in ‘Two Polish Jews’. The final two numbers are particularly impressive with highly-charged octaves at the opening of ‘Baba Yaga’ and a real sense of malice in the ensuing dissonances. ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’, on the other hand, combines grandeur and nobility, and there’s a marvellous rich timbre in the oscillating bell sounds near the end.

Osborne fully exploits the demonic and grotesque imagery that characterise Prokofiev’s early Sarcasms and his forthright performance makes these epigrammatic and almost improvisatory pieces sound as startling now as they must have done for Russian listeners nearly a hundred years ago. Similarly, he lets rip in the more exuberant pieces from Visions fugitives. In this collection, composed against the background of the 1917 Russian Revolution, Prokofiev covers a greater spectrum of emotions than in Sarcasms, from the violent and jocular to the mystical and delicate. Osborne revels in the music’s schizophrenic changes of mood, delivering playing that is not only vivid but also beautifully poised. 


Erik Levi