Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Mussorgsky
LABELS: Orfeo
WORKS: Pictures at an Exhibition
PERFORMER: Elena Kuschnerova (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: C 284 021 A
Elena Kuschnerova sounds no trumpets at the beginning of her gallery tour, preferring to let the spectator be overwhelmed by degrees. So by the time she arrives at the longest and most repetitive of the Promenades – the one Ravel didn’t include in his orchestration – the élan is irresistible.

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There’s ideal contrast between the more delicate, impressionistic numbers and the slabs of authentic Eastern European grit, most impressive in the sequence of ‘Tuileries’ and ‘Bydlo’, all of it graced with the kind of musicianly rubato Abbado engages in Mussorgsky’s orchestral and operatic music. That aside, Kuschnerova is scrupulous with the score, taking neither Pletnev’s heavily orchestrated line nor Horowitz’s liberties. Perhaps she’s not quite as individual as Richter – who could be? – and ‘Limoges’ could have more sparkle, but structurally everything makes sense: the potentially too-slow, too-soon ‘Old Castle’ glides along as in a dream, and a subtly tremoloing conversation with the dead is the inevitable heart and soul of Mussorgsky’s tribute to his late friend, the architect Viktor Hartmann.

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The rest of Kuschnerova’s admirable all-Mussorgsky programme is salon music without much pretence to the quirky nuances for which the composer is so exhaustively fêted. At the end of Souvenir d’enfance No. 1 there’s a surprise Russian cadence, and the late Méditation has a frozen lyricism about it which initially startles, but the real rough-hewn diamond, Intermezzo in modo classico, is absent, and I, for one, would rather have heard the variations composed for Kuschnerova by Alexander Lokshin, a fascinating figure. Maybe next time. David Nice