Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition; Schumann: Kinderszenen / Gavrylyuk

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MUSSORGSKY Pictures at an Exhibition. SCHUMANN Kinderszenen Alexander Gavrylyuk (pn) PIANO 63 (50:08)

My hat is off to the young (b. 1984) Ukrainian-Australian pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk. Given all the piano versions of Pictures at an Exhibition I’ve heard, it is seldom, even in those that I review positively, that I encounter a pianist who opens up for me worthwhile new artistic insights into the piece. Yet, Gavrylyuk has done just that. His renditions of both works offered herein are revelatory. The pianist won renown by bringing home the gold medal in the 1999 Horowitz International Piano Competition, and has been performing to rave reviews ever since. He is, in a word, an amazing artist.

Needless to say, I will document my conviction of that statement in the following few paragraphs, but really, dear reader, you need not even bother reading the remainder of this review to rush out and purchase this CD from your favorite retailer. I promise you, you won’t be disappointed.

Gavrylyuk has clearly rethought both of the works he presents here, with the result that his interpretations sometimes diverge from established performance practice, but never from good musical practice. That is, I think, a distinction that is important to make. There are some places in Pictures, the piece that I know better than any other, but which I thought upon hearing him, “Wow, imagine that!” However, I never once thought, “How does he think he can get away with that!” To cite some examples: In “Gnomus,” he varies the speed of the six-note figures, one of which opens the movement. Now, most pianists pace the second such figure (found in measure four) considerably slower than the first one, given Mussorgsky’s tempo indication of Meno vivo in that measure. Nevertheless, most of the subsequent figures are placed pretty much in the same Sempre vivo tempo of the beginning of the piece. Not Gavrylyuk. The figure in measure 14 is played with such blinding speed that it almost becomes a blur, but the one in measure 58 is executed much more deliberately, which sets up the following Meno mosso section in spectacular fashion. You just have to hear it to appreciate it. I will cite one other example of his divergence from established performance practice, and that comes in the last three notes of the third Promenade. Almost everyone else plays these three notes staccato, despite no indication from Mussorgsky that they are to be played thus. Most pianists consider that staccato notes here will effectively launch the playful “Tuileries,” but Gavrylyuk instead makes these legato, and caresses each note as if it is the most important in that short phrase—or perhaps in the entire Promenade. As a result, “Tuileries” springs upon the listener as a real surprise. It’s both different and effective.

From the opening Promenade of this work, one realizes that Gavrylyuk is first and foremost concerned about making music in this piece, and not as much concerned about representing the Hartmann artworks in the music, or in the case of this Promenade, Mussorgsky’s self-depiction. This is not to say that this pianist is unconcerned with the subject matter, but for him, it must be subordinated at all times to musical concerns. It’s difficult to dispute such an approach. If his “Baba-Yaga” sounds more like a scherzo than a menacing Russian witch, it is done so so musically that I’ll not be the one to gainsay him. I often criticize pianists for failing to sufficiently evoke gossiping women in “Limoges,” but not here, even though he doesn’t. However, in many places, his musicality also enhances the images that Mussorgsky has repainted into the piece. The oxen of “Byd?o” are heard straining to their maximum ability here, and the laughing child being scolded by his babushka is most effectively portrayed in the section beginning in measure 14 of “Tuileries.”

The poor Jew Schmuÿle increases the intensity of his begging in Gavrylyuk’s hands, beginning in measure 13 of “Goldenberg,” through a more deliberate rendering of his line, and the end of this movement has to be just about the most effective and evocative that I’ve heard from any pianist. Gavrylyuk generally follows Mussorgsky’s score quite closely, only occasionally adding an additional octave to the notes in the left hand. This occurs for example, in the section of “Great Gate” beginning in measure 91, and at the end of the fifth Promenade. Then there’s the dramatic crescendo that Gavrylyuk has added to the last measure of the middle section of “Baba-Yaga” going into the recapitulation of the “A” section. Stunning! One very curious change comes in Promenade IV, though, where he changes Mussorgsky’s left-hand octave Gs on beat five of measure eight to Es. That’s the one thing he did in the entire work that didn’t convince me. It doesn’t sound bad, but why change notes that are perfectly good the way Mussorgsky wrote them?

One other nice touch that demands being mentioned here comes in “Catacombs,” where the pianist holds the sustaining pedal down between measures 4 and 5, and again between 6 and 7, so that the harmonies are blurred into each other. In most pieces, this might be quite inappropriate, but it works perfectly in this piece, even though I cannot recall another pianist doing it.

Gavrylyuk’s approach to Schumann’s Kinderszenen (a great disc-mate, incidentally, as it comes as close as anything to being a true antecedent to Mussorgsky’s path-breaking work) is as carefully thought out as his approach to Pictures. Each of its movements is exquisitely conceived, both in terms of its individuality, and in its context within the suite. You may have heard “Träumerei” in just about as many performances as I’ve heard of Pictures, but I daresay this one will immediately take its place at or near the top among your favorites. The degree of love that Gavrylyuk has poured into this and the other pieces simply beggars description.

Piano Classics has done a superb job in capturing the sound of the piano, making this a disc not to be missed by anyone who considers himself a piano enthusiast. The CD will be a very strong contender for my next IKVA award, coming up next issue.

FANFARE: David DeBoor Canfield

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: PCL0063

  • UPC: 5065001863820

  • Label: Piano Classics

  • Composer: Modest Mussorgsky, Robert Schumann

  • Performer: Alexander Gavrylyuk