Paul Lewis and Mussorgsky - a surprising combination

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Ricordanza
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Paul Lewis and Mussorgsky - a surprising combination

Post by Ricordanza » Sat Dec 18, 2021 3:43 pm

“Ideas, melodies come to me of their own accord. Like a banquet of music—I gorge and gorge and overeat myself. I can hardly manage to put them down on paper fast enough.”

So wrote Modest Mussorgsky about the experience of composing his most famous work, Pictures at an Exhibition. The story of this piece is well known: Following the premature death of Mussorgsky’s friend, artist and architect Victor Hartmann, a memorial exhibit of his works was organized. Inspired by these works, Mussorgsky wrote a piano suite consisting of ten of these pictures, interspersed with a subtly changing Promenade that depicts the composer strolling from one painting or drawing to the next. The resulting piece is a remarkable work of creativity and originality. It has been a landmark of the piano repertoire ever since its 1874 publication.

General audiences are probably more familiar with the orchestrated version of this work, and in particular, Maurice Ravel’s orchestration. In fact, that’s the version I first heard many years ago. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare the original piano work with the orchestral version. Yes, I know, it’s like comparing apples and oranges….but I’ve always preferred apples to oranges and since I first heard “Pictures” performed on the piano, I have preferred the original version of this piece. There is a raw power to the original piano version that grabs me in a way that can’t be duplicated by the orchestra. So when I saw this work on the program for Paul Lewis’ piano recital on Wednesday evening, December 15th (originally scheduled for December 3rd, but delayed because of the British pianist’s visa problems), it was an easy decision to get tickets for this concert.

At first glance, Paul Lewis would seem an unlikely choice to program “Pictures.” Lewis is known for his Beethoven interpretations, having performed and recorded the full set of 32 Sonatas. A student of Alfred Brendel, he is also known for his renditions of Mozart, Schubert and Brahms, in other words, all the composers of the Germanic tradition. But when I got home, I looked at my notes from the first recital by Paul Lewis I attended five and a half years ago. In addition to works by Schubert and Brahms, Lewis closed his program with a blazing performance of Franz Liszt’s Apres une lecture du Dante, also known as the “Dante Sonata.” I concluded at the time that he put this piece on the program to let us know that this supposed “classicist” shouldn’t be pigeonholed as a performer.

And what about his performance of “Pictures” Wednesday evening? One of the best I’ve heard, either in concert or in recordings. Lewis played some of the sections, such as The Gnome and Tuileries, just a fraction slower than some other pianists, just enough to let the listener savor the detail of these musical sketches. Catacombs was played at a very slow, almost glacial pace, but somehow it worked. A vivid, dark image was conveyed as each of these deep, often dissonant chords was allowed to sink in. Then, Lewis turned it on full throttle to deliver the final, triumphal section, The Great Gate of Kiev, in grand fashion. The standing ovation by nearly the entire audience was well deserved.

Although “Pictures” brought me to this recital, I certainly can’t ignore the remainder of the program. Lewis began the recital with Mozart’s Sonata in A Major, K. 331, best known for its third movement, the Rondo alla turca (Turkish Rondo). To the modern ear, there’s nothing particularly Middle Eastern about this music, but apparently, in Mozart’s time, it was sufficiently exotic to earn the “Turkish” label. The rest of the sonata is appealing as well, especially the gorgeous theme and variations of the first movement. Lewis’ performance was sparkling and energetic.

Alexander Scriabin’s Five Preludes, Opus 74, sound decidedly different from the early Chopinesque works of this Russian composer. These Preludes stretch and sometimes break the bounds of tonality. I found it hard to warm up to these pieces, but Lewis clearly reveres this music and it was reflected in his performance. Notably, he proceeded without pause from the last Prelude to the opening Promenade of “Pictures.” Was Lewis trying to make a point that there was a link between the unconventional harmonies of this older Russian composer and the further flights from tonality of Scriabin? Perhaps.

I hope I don’t have to wait another five years for another chance to hear this outstanding pianist.

Rach3
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Re: Paul Lewis and Mussorgsky - a surprising combination

Post by Rach3 » Sat Dec 18, 2021 5:11 pm

Many thanks. I,too,prefer apples to oranges, and the original piano version.Indeed, bit surprised it would be a recital choice of Lewis, although in the 50’s his mentor Brendel recorded “Pictures”, “Islamey” and “Petrushka” as well as the Prokofiev 5th PC.

Rach3
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Joined: Tue Apr 03, 2018 9:17 am

Re: Paul Lewis and Mussorgsky - a surprising combination

Post by Rach3 » Sat Dec 18, 2021 9:07 pm

Richter, in "Notebooks and Conversations":

"I disapprove of transcriptions, unless they are by the composer; the original always strikes me as better.Much as I love Ravel's music,I find his orchestral transcription of Mussorgsky's 'Pictures at an Exhibition' an abomination, a terrible decorative travesty of the most profound masterpiece of Russian piano music."

Rach3
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Joined: Tue Apr 03, 2018 9:17 am

Re: Paul Lewis and Mussorgsky - a surprising combination

Post by Rach3 » Sat Dec 18, 2021 9:18 pm

Rach3 wrote:
Sat Dec 18, 2021 5:11 pm
Many thanks. I,too,prefer apples to oranges, and the original piano version.Indeed, bit surprised it would be a recital choice of Lewis, although in the 50’s his mentor Brendel recorded “Pictures”, “Islamey” and “Petrushka” as well as the Prokofiev 5th PC.
Allegedly, Brendel live in Japan (?),1985:


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKyj-ou ... ut5WU&t=15

Ricordanza
Posts: 2171
Joined: Sun Jun 26, 2005 4:58 am
Location: Southern New Jersey, USA

Re: Paul Lewis and Mussorgsky - a surprising combination

Post by Ricordanza » Sun Dec 19, 2021 6:34 am

Rach3 wrote:
Sat Dec 18, 2021 9:07 pm
Richter, in "Notebooks and Conversations":

"I disapprove of transcriptions, unless they are by the composer; the original always strikes me as better.Much as I love Ravel's music,I find his orchestral transcription of Mussorgsky's 'Pictures at an Exhibition' an abomination, a terrible decorative travesty of the most profound masterpiece of Russian piano music."
An abomination? Wow, I wouldn't go that far! Some of it is prettified in Ravel's orchestration, but I have to admit, "The Great Gate of Kiev" is grand and stirring in his version.

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