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Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition; Balakirev, Sverdlov / Vladimir Sverdlov

Mussogrgsky / Balakirev / Sverdlov
Release Date: 01/10/2012 
Label:  Piano Classics   Catalog #: 23   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Modest MussorgskyMily BalakirevVladimir Sverdlov
Performer:  Vladimir Sverdlov
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 0 Hours 54 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

MUSSORGSKY Pictures at an Exhibition. BALAKIREV Islamey. Nocturne No. 1. SVERDLOV-ASHKENAZY 4 Pieces Vladimir Sverdlov (pn) PIANO CLASSICS PCL0023 (54:10)

With the proliferation of recordings of Pictures at an Exhibition, it should come as no surprise that a few pianists desire to set themselves Read more well outside of the mainstream of the performance practice of this warhorse. Vladimir Sverdlov not only sets himself apart from other pianists in his traversal of the piece, but assumes a posture that seems almost akin to the mad scientist who concocts wacky experiments in his laboratory, without cognizance or care about any of the received discoveries of science. Such an approach makes for a very interesting reading of the piece, which I suspect knowledgeable listeners will either love or hate. If you’ve become jaded toward Mussorgsky’s masterpiece, you might try this CD out to see if a fresh approach will rekindle your interest. This is by no means the CD to acquire if it would be your first recording of the piano version of Pictures, but if you already have several that you like, Sverdlov’s recording might be a reading to complement those.

So what sets off his interpretation from all the rest? How much time do you have? Better question: How much space will Fanfare’s editors allow me? Not that much, I hear them thinking, so I’ll just hit some highlights. First of all, his tempi in the various movements combine to make this one of the fastest Pictures out there. Its timing of 30:11 is bested (to my knowledge—I haven’t timed every one of the more than 400 piano performances I own) only by Peter Rösel, who clocks in at a breathtaking 29:48. The promenades are all particularly mercurial, the fourth of them being the lone exception to Sverdlov’s gallop through the gallery. For instance, his Promenade I times out at 1: 06, whereas its duration for other pianists generally falls between 1:15 and 1:30. For a piece of such short duration, the difference leaps out at you; if this had been an LP, I’d have thought that I was inadvertently playing it at 45 rpm.

Secondly, Sverdlov uses the sustaining pedal throughout the course of the work more than any other pianist I can recall. An instance right off the bat occurs in the first measure of “Gnomus,” where he allows the sonorities of the six notes of that measure to last well into the second measure, which has only a sustained G?. He likewise seems to have attached a weight to his pedal in the first section of “Goldenberg and Schmuÿle” and in the scales beginning in measure 47 of “Great Gate.” The pedal at the beginning of “Limoges” is so pronounced that it makes the movement into a much different piece. All of this is deliberate, of course, and whether you will like it will depend largely upon whether you’re tired of hearing Pictures played as everyone else plays it.

Sverdlov’s unique approach to the work doesn’t end with his pedaling. He delights in bringing out notes that no one else pays much attention to, such as pronounced accent on the F## in the left hand of measure 44 in “Il vecchio Castello,” or a similar accentuation of the line in the same hand in m. 66–67. He seems to take a perverse delight in completely obliterating Mussorgsky’s dynamics in many places. Measure 27 in “Gnomus” is played pianissimo in its first iteration, but on the repeat, fortissimo. In measure 81 of the “Great Gate,” Mussorgsky’s mezzo-forte becomes a pianissimo. Admittedly, this change does allow Sverdlov to make a much greater and more dramatic crescendo in this section.

At other times, he produces dynamic extremes far beyond what Mussorgsky calls for. Note, for example, how the composer’s fortissimo at the beginning of “Byd?o” becomes a triple forte under Sverdlov’s fingers. This might be effective, were it not for the disc’s substandard recorded sound, tending toward harshness and lack of warmth and bass frequencies. Consequently, this opening sounds like nothing more than banging, and tends to drown out the melody in the right hand. His opening of “Great Gate” is also fortissimo instead of Mussorgsky’s forte, and the last four notes of the descending run in measure 113 are pounded out as loudly as the piano is capable of sounding.

Sverdlov would seem to want his listeners to think that his performance is always on the edge, just that far from losing control. (He actually does momentarily lose control in the da capo section of “Ballet of Unhatched Chicks,” but I’d not be at all surprised if this were also intentional). This on-the-edge approach works especially well in “Limoges,” where readers will recall my rather frequent carping at pianists who are too careful in this movement. Sverdlov is anything but careful in his breakneck speed, but his pedaling will turn off some listeners. He makes the piece sound as if you’re hearing it from the next room—maybe that’s the way he’s attempting to portray the whole concept of gossip. I don’t know—it is effective on some level, but also just weird.

The weirdest thing on this whole CD, though, is the miking of the piano in certain places. At the end of “Tuilleries” (otherwise probably the most straightforward reading of any movement in the suite), the movement fades out dramatically at the end, and for all the world sounds as if the engineer has the microphone on wheels and is rapidly pulling it away from the piano. The reverse effect is heard at the beginning of Promenade V, where the piano sounds as if it’s almost in the next county, playing at the normal volume, and then is rolled up toward the microphone so that by measure 15 everything is up to its usual loudness and presence, all of this happening while the music is being played at a hell-for-leather tempo. Not only Mussorgsky is afflicted with this fooling around with the ambience: In the third movement of Sverdlov’s own work, the same kind of thing is going on. Someone involved in the production of this CD clearly thought that he’d had a stroke of brilliance, apparently not remembering the similar experimentation that Glenn Gould undertook in his Columbia recording of piano music of Jean Sibelius. I seem to remember that critics at the time didn’t take too kindly to what was pretty obviously Gould’s brainstorm, and I certainly found the sudden shifts in ambience disconcerting on that recording.

As I intimated, there’s lots more I could say about this extremely quirky performance of Pictures (the pianist even elected to leave in the sound of an accidentally breaking string in “Baba-Yaga,” I believe at about 36 seconds into the movement), but my comments to this point should be sufficient for you to know if this CD belongs in your library. Sverdlov’s Islamey is not quite as quirky, and his Barere-like tempo in this work of legendary difficulty proves he has technique to burn. However, I find his reading rather perfunctory, especially in the quieter middle section. Likewise, his rendition of Balakirev’s Nocturne No. 1 needs more time to breathe and sing.

Sverdlov’s own Four Pieces stylistically match the works on the rest of the disc well, given that his composition is heavily influenced by Russian Romantic school. The ghosts of Scriabin and Medtner hover over the first and third of the pieces, and those of Prokofiev, Miaskovsky, and Shostakovich over the second and fourth of the set. The pieces are generally competently written, although Sverdlov extends the ostinato in the left hand in the second of the pieces (“Electro”) beyond its interest-sustaining capability. In the other pieces, he effectively uses filigree in one hand over and around the melody in the other. These pieces would be fun to play to your friends in guess-the-composer games. Interestingly, Sverdlov appends the surname of his grandfather, David Ashkenazy (also a pianist and composer) to his own name for the music he writes. He is, incidentally, a nephew of Vladimir Ashkenazy.

There are unquestionably some effective touches and brilliant playing to be found on this CD, but whether you will want to buy it likely boils down to how you answer the question, “Do I want a performance of Pictures that is performed such as to make it sound like an entirely different piece from the one I know and love?” Various readers will fall on either side of the two possible answers to that question. The piano sound, while not very good, isn’t bad enough to avoid purchasing it on sonic grounds alone.

FANFARE: David DeBoor Canfield
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Works on This Recording

Pictures at an Exhibition for Piano by Modest Mussorgsky
Performer:  Vladimir Sverdlov (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1874; Russia 
Date of Recording: 02/2011 
Venue:  CMS Studio Moscow 
Length: 28 Minutes 24 Secs. 
Oriental Fantasy for Piano, Op. 18 "Islamey" by Mily Balakirev
Performer:  Vladimir Sverdlov (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1869/1902; Russia 
Date of Recording: 02/2011 
Venue:  CMS Studio Moscow 
Length: 8 Minutes 54 Secs. 
Nocturne for Piano no 1 in B flat minor by Mily Balakirev
Performer:  Vladimir Sverdlov (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1898; Russia 
Date of Recording: 02/2011 
Venue:  CMS Studio Moscow 
Length: 5 Minutes 37 Secs. 
Pieces (4) for piano by Vladimir Sverdlov
Performer:  Vladimir Sverdlov (Piano)
Period: Contemporary 
Written: 2008-2009 
Date of Recording: 02/2011 
Venue:  CMS Studio Moscow 
Length: 8 Minutes 23 Secs. 

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