Notes and Editorial Reviews
THE MIGHTY HANDFUL
Philip Edward Fisher (pn)
CHANDOS CHAN 10676 (81:07)
Pictures at an Exhibition.
Scherzo. Petite Suite.
Recording a new version of
Pictures at an Exhibition
must be a daunting task, even for the best of pianists. On the one hand, if a pianist eschews all of the performance practice that attends this piece in a misguided attempt to set himself apart from the pack, he will doubtless be castigated by reviewers (and certainly by this one). However, if he plays it safe and doesn’t step outside of the traditions established by the great pianists before him, he will likely find that his review elicits such phrases as “unimaginative,” “lacking personality,” and so forth. Pianist Philip Edward Fisher does a rather good job in negotiating his way through this minefield, as he has given us a version that goes neither too far in the one direction or the other. Having studied with Christopher Elton, Joseph Kalichstein, and Jerome Lowenthal, he clearly has the technical chops necessary for all of the music in this collection. He also has a good feel for how
and the other Russian music here presented ought to go.
Before I proceed further with this review, however, may I take an intermission, and make a request of every pianist who might desire to tackle
in the next 1,000 years? My request is very simple: Whatever edition of the Mussorgsky you currently have in your library, please pitch it, and replace it with the edition by Nancy Bricard, published by Alfred Publishing Co. (No, I don’t work for them, nor do I even know anyone at the firm!) Bricard has meticulously checked every note, dynamic, articulation, and phrase mark against the original autograph; using her edition will keep you from playing notes that Mussorgsky never envisioned, as well as errant dynamics and other mistaken markings. If Fisher had used it, he would have avoided criticism on my part for at least three places in the score where he plays wrong notes, albeit notes that are certainly in the edition that he used in learning the piece. These occur in measure 98 in “Il vecchio Castello,” where there is a B in the left hand in place of Mussorgsky’s A?; in the last beat in the right hand of measure 18 of the fifth promenade, where E? is replaced with E? in the chord (it
E? in the same place in the following measure); and in measure 16 of “Limoges” where he plays C as the top note of the chord on beat 1, instead of Mussorgsky’s E. This last is particularly grating on the ear.
Faulty edition aside, I have a generally very positive impression of his performance of this masterwork, but I’ll go through the piece in order giving selected comments, pro and con, about his reading. The opening “Promenade” seems a bit lacking in subtlety; most pianists, for instance, ease off a bit in volume at the beginning of measure 9, and crescendo over the next two measures. His tempo in the movement is at least quite appropriate. Fisher’s gnome is quite a bit more playful than the malicious gnome that most pianists give us. This doesn’t bother me too much, as it would seem to fall within the permissible boundaries of what Mussorgsky intended. The trilled section beginning in m. 72 does begin to sound more ominous, and the concluding run is brilliantly executed, albeit with a touch too much pedal.
I like very much the singing melodic line that he achieves in “Castello,” and the subtleties in phrasing he brings to this movement. His occasional hesitation in the rhythms of “Tuilleries” (for example, m. 7) are also most effective. Fisher’s oxen in “Byd?o” strain convincingly under their burdens, and he effectively varies the articulation in the lumbering chords of the left hand (for example, mm. 16 and 51ff). His “Ballet of Unhatched Chicks” ranks up there with just about anyone’s, and in m. 31 I hear, for the first time from any pianist I can recall, a realistic depiction of an unborn chick trying to peck its way out of its shell. He achieves this by making the rhythms subtly uneven, and the effect is remarkable. “Goldenberg” is a little less impressive; Fisher’s rhythms are not free enough for my taste, and in measures 15ff, the melodic line of the rich Jew in the left hand is not quite prominent enough against his poor counterpart in the right.
Like most pianists, Fisher is a little too careful in “Limoges.” That piece works best if the pianist throws all caution to the wind. Still, there are some nice touches of phrasing on Fisher’s part in this movement, and it is actually quite effective otherwise. In m. 8 of “Catacombs,” Fisher observes the fermata that many pianists largely ignore. Mussorgsky put it there for a reason, as is proven when one hears it observed. On the other hand, he ignores the fermata in “Cum mortuis” in m. 5. Easy come, easy go! (It should be observed.) His “Baba-Yaga” is scary, and the middle section is mysterious, although it loses a touch of its forward momentum along the way. My main criticism in this movement is that the important upbeats to measures 120 and 121 are scarcely audible, even though they are marked
. I also prefer the right hand in m. 108-9 to be more accented and staccato. Fisher’s “Great Gate” is appropriately majestic, and leaves little room for criticism. I like very much his slightly relaxed tempo in m. 47, the downward cascading scales in m. 111ff, and the impressive bell-like sounds he achieves in mm. 81ff.
The other lesser-known (and some quite unknown) pieces on this CD come off at least as well as
Poor César Cui’s music would hardly ever be heard except for his inclusion in recitals of the collected works of “The Five” (or the more accurate translation from the Russian
“The Mighty Handful,” as appears on this CD.) While few would argue that Cui’s talent matched that of the other members of the group, he was something more than the dilettante that he is usually credited as being. As you listen to his lovely Nocturne in F?, flavored with imaginative descending chromatic lines that lead to a brief middle section full of passion, I believe you will agree that such music does not deserve its considerable neglect (I note with interest and pleasure what I believe to be the first complete recording of a Cui opera in an advertisement in the booklet of this release). I am thankful that Fisher presented us with this quite unknown morsel from Cui, rather than the one piece by him,
that we often encounter in such anthologies.
Alexander Borodin is represented in this recital by two works, the Scherzo in A? and
The former is a scintillating work, in which Fisher brings out every sparkle. The
is a seven-movement work, probably as well (or better) known in its orchestral version by Glazunov, who also orchestrated the present Scherzo. Truth be told, Glazunov probably orchestrated more of Borodin’s music than Borodin did, including large portions of
and his unfinished Symphony No. 3. The tolling bells in the first movement of the suite heard here may have inspired Rachmaninoff in his Prelude in C?-Minor. The suite is a delight from beginning to end, especially in the capable hands of this pianist. He snaps the mazurka rhythms as crisply as one could desire, for instance. Its sixth movement could have been written only by the composer of the
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s piano music (along with his solo songs) constitutes the least familiar component of his large output. On the evidence of the three works presented here, it’s a pity, as this music should be as well known as his orchestral works and operas. The Scherzino in A Major is a delicious bit of capriciousness, while the Romance in A? is warmly nostalgic, and the Waltz in C?-Major (who but Rimsky would write a piece in
key—it was he who wrote a triple ? in one of his operas) is a lovely exercise in unexpected turns of harmony and key center.
Fisher closes his recital with the second-best-known work of the lot, the
of Mily Balakirev (for those who care, his name is pronounced Buh-LAH-kee-ryeff, not the way one usually hears it, and while I’m at it, it’s Bah-rah-DYEEN for Borodin, and KEW-ee for Cui). Fisher gives this work of legendary difficulty a polished and refined reading. He is clearly not a graduate of the bat-out-of-hell piano school that produced Simon Barere, but his approach to the piece, will surely win some admirers. Others will prefer the reckless abandon of a Barere. I’ll take either approach myself. I just admire anyone who can get through the work in one piece.
If you’ve read this far, you almost certainly already have a
or two in your collection. Even if you have that piece, and have no burning desire to own another version, you should note that in this extremely generously filled disc that you’ll still get almost 50 minutes of music that you may not already own, all of it well played (including
). Given that, it’s quite easy to recommend this interesting recital as a worthy addition to your collection.
FANFARE: David DeBoor Canfield
Philip Edward Fisher offers us an accomplished, elegantly-played collection of piano music by ‘The Mighty Handful,’ the five nationalist Russian composers who were central to that nation’s romantic tradition. Not every composer is represented equally, of course; Mussorgsky’s
Pictures at an Exhibition stands aside a nocturne by César Cui, for example, and three tiny miniatures by Rimsky-Korsakov. But the
Pictures are part of a very well-kept gallery, and a generous one too, with 81 minutes of music!
Pictures is the beginning work, and Fisher’s is a polished, lyrical account, with a suitably massive, luxurious instrumental tone. His way with the quieter, more contemplative scenes is well worth hearing, especially the nocturne atmosphere of the ‘Old Castle.’ Still, one wonders if there’s something maybe too tender about this, especially in a nigh-symphonic ‘Great Gate of Kiev’ which stretches out to six full minutes: I can’t help but think back to the wildness and untamed energy of Alfred Brendel’s Vox reading. Now, before anyone writes in to the editors saying, “
there’s been a mistake, ‘wildness’ and ‘Alfred Brendel’ have been used in the same sentence,” go give his 1955 Vox recital (also included:
Islamey and the
Three Movements from Petrushka) a listen. Brendel rather slays the ‘Gnomus’ and wakes the dead of the catacombs, to be sure, but his ‘Ballet of Unhatched Chicks’ teeters thrillingly on the edge of the unplayable, and the reading as a whole is unsubtle but undeniable fun. Fisher is many things, and he is better in movements where Brendel’s mad dash gets the better of him, but wild he is not.
This suits Fisher very well indeed in the rest of the program. The works by Cui, Borodin, and Rimsky-Korsakov are all miniatures probably intended for performance at home, and designed to give the casual listener maximum pleasure-per-bar. Actually, Borodin’s
Petite Suite is, despite its name, fairly serious and substantial, stretching to 20 minutes: its seven movements include two mazurkas and a concluding nocturne, and the opening tone-picture of bells in a cathedral is surprisingly austere and harmonically adventurous. The mazurkas are rather reminiscent of Chopin, delightfully so, but the nocturne is something very special indeed. It stands on a level above the rest of this material, one of Borodin’s most gorgeous and distinctive slow movements. The way the main theme (which is, in a way, its own splendid accompaniment) reappears at 1:33 is a touch of poetic genius on the part of both composer and performer. The trimmings by Cui and Rimsky-Korsakov, as pretty as they are, have nothing on this. Note to Philip Edward Fisher: this nocturne is your signature recital encore. Make it your calling-card. With familiarity it must grow even more ravishing; imagine Ivan Moravec or Martha Argerich playing it!
The grand finale is Balakirev’s
Islamey, of course. Here, though, Fisher’s emphasis on getting the notes right means that he restrains himself, perhaps too much; I don’t want sloppy playing, of course, and those infinite repeated notes are incredibly difficult, but it must be possible to bring out a little more color, a little more willingness to push one’s tempos and rattle about. The recording process, with its ability to produce absolute technical perfection and a level of polish unimaginable years ago, sometimes encourages artists’ inhibitions. If I could I would tell Fisher to drink a Red Bull, stretch, look away from the score, and set down
Islamey in one take.
Still, I am indebted to this release for an introduction to the Borodin nocturne from
Petite Suite, for the excellent liner notes (including an essay by Fisher), and for 81 minutes of pleasure in the company of the Mighty Handful. It might be easy to imagine a Richter, Gilels, or Brendel getting through the program in a little less time, but as a whole, and especially given the diversity of the voices presented, this disc is very much worth any piano lover’s attention. If the choice of cover art seems odd, by the way, be apprised that it is one of the original ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’: Viktor Hartmann’s
Catacombs of Paris.
-- Brian Reinhart, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Petite Suite for Piano by Alexander Borodin
Philip Edward Fisher (Piano)
Written: 1885; Russia
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