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Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition; Rachmaninov: Variations / Grace Francis

Mussorgsky / Francis,Grace
Release Date: 10/08/2013 
Label:  Quartz Records   Catalog #: 2099   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Modest MussorgskySergei Rachmaninov
Performer:  Grace Francis
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

MUSSORGSKY Pictures at an Exhibition. RACHMANINOFF Variations on a Theme of Corelli. Piano Sonata No. 2 (1931 version) Grace Francis (pn) QUARTZ 2099 (70:37)

English pianist Grace Francis hails from London and attended the Yehudi Menuhin School, working with Peter Norris and Louis Kentner. From there, she went to the Royal College of Music, and further refined her pianistic skills Read more with Irina Zaritskaya. Perhaps it was the latter teacher who helped instill in her a love for the great Russian Romantic music, a selection of which is contained in the present recital, which contains two war horses and one ordinary horse. By that, I’m not trying to be a “neigh-sayer” (ahem), but simply to imply that Rachmaninoff’s Corelli Variations is not heard nearly as often as the two other works herein presented. Francis plays all three of these pieces well.

If you’ve read any significant number of my reviews of Pictures , though, you’ll have noted that there are many pianists that play the work well, yet about whose performances I nevertheless cite things that could be bettered. That is the case with the reading heard here, but first the positives: I appreciated her clarity of texture, her careful polishing and placement of each note within the phrase, and the sense of line she uses to propel the work forward in convincing fashion. Much to be admired is her exquisite fading away at the end of the second Promenade, the really delightful “Ballet of Unhatched Chicks,” and a resplendent “Great Gate.” She uses an almost impeccable edition of the work, flawed only in the omission of the tie in the bass line between measures 20 and 21 in “Catacombs.” Hers is a solid reading, well within the mainstream of the interpretive tradition. Even in the places where she goes astray, she never goes too far afield.

All of that having been said, here are a few things that I feel she would do well to consider. First of all the very brisk tempos of the first, third, and fifth promenades may be musically satisfying, but I do not believe that these gallops through the gallery really represent what Mussorgsky had in mind for these introductory and linking movements. Simply put, no one would walk through any art gallery that quickly, unless someone had set off the fire alarm. In “Byd?o,” she does a splendid job in portraying grunting and straining oxen, but fails to achieve a sufficient climax in measure 38, which is marked con tutto forza , i.e., “with all [possible] force.” In the movement devoted to the two Jews, “Goldenberg” comes off marvelously, because of her weighting of each note to suggest his pomposity. “Schmuÿle,” however, suffers from being too tame. The portrayal of his begging suggests something (noting the nationality of the pianist) along the lines of, “I say, old chap, you wouldn’t happen to have a spare tuppence, would you?”

“Limoges” is presented with a break-neck speed, quite appropriate and impressive. However, the concluding 32nd-note runs are so fast that the line becomes unfathomable. I’m pretty sure that that is not what Mussorgsky had in mind here, although her ability to play all of those notes that quickly is breathtaking. The most serious flaw in this performance comes in “Baba-Yaga,” where the “B” section beginning at measure 95 is simply not scary enough. Nor is she careful in the speed of the opening triplets. As do many pianists, she stumbles in failing to achieve distinction in the speed of these compared with the tremolo in measure 108, which should be very noticeably faster.

As in the Mussorgsky, Francis’s performances of the two Rachmaninoff works are carefully thought-out, and cleanly and musically rendered. She brings good contrast to the many moods expressed in the Corelli Variations (the theme is La Follia , and is by an unknown composer, and not by Corelli, although he used it). I have little to complain about in these fine performances, except that she would have given us more drama in some of the great washes of sound that Rachmaninoff hurls at the listener, such as one encounters in Horowitz’s recording of the Second Sonata.

All in all, Francis is a very fine pianist. She has her own musical personality, albeit not one that is so strong or pronounced that those who know her playing would instantly identify a performance as hers. These recordings would be suitable for the collector lacking the repertory, or who is dissatisfied with the present performances contained in his library. Because Francis seeks to be in the mainstream of performance tradition, and doesn’t really take chances in any of these pieces, her renditions may not offer new insights to the veteran collector, but I do believe they would be found to be highly enjoyable by the great majority of Fanfare ’s readers who collect Russian Romantic repertory, or piano recordings in particular.

FANFARE: David DeBoor Canfield
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Works on This Recording

Pictures at an Exhibition for Piano by Modest Mussorgsky
Performer:  Grace Francis (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1874; Russia 
Variations on a theme of Corelli, Op. 42 by Sergei Rachmaninov
Performer:  Grace Francis (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1931; USA 
Sonata for Piano no 2 in B flat minor, Op. 36 by Sergei Rachmaninov
Performer:  Grace Francis (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1913/1931; Russia 

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