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CD Review

Pictures at an Exhibition

Gramola 99074
Michael Korstick, piano
Gramola 99074 78:32
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The works on this Gramola disc were recorded in 1999 and issued in 2005 on the Ars Musici label. It's a little surprising that the recording properties on this reissue are so excellent, sounding fully competitive with state of the art piano recordings of today. The performances of the major works, Mussorgsky's Pictures and Prokofiev's 8th Piano Sonata are superbly played by Korstick, a pianist who has achieved considerable acclaim for his Beethoven sonatas, and works by Koechlin, Liszt and Debussy. The shorter pieces on the disc by Tchaikovsky and Liapunov are also well played, even if they are comparatively lightweight alongside the other repertory here. The bottom line is that Korstick is as persuasive in Russian repertory as he is in German and French.

His Pictures is a big epic performance, powerful and grandly post-Romantic. Moreover, he divulges a mostly convincing sense for achieving balances and contrasts, turning on a dime from elegance to muscularity: try the gentle but tense Cum mortis in lingua mortua and then hear the urgent and powerful The Hut on Fowl's Legs that ensues. True, the moments of repose in The Great Gate of Kiev are relatively brawny, yet Korstick's sense of thrust and grandeur make the ending one of the most triumphant and glorious you're likely to encounter on disc or in the concert hall. Arguably Korstick tends to be a little too weighty in places, as in Les Tuileries and Bydlo; and in Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle, the latter character's carping may be just a bit over the top. Still, Korstick makes an excellent case for his more muscular way, the music always sounding spirited and colorful, each of the Pictures coming to life quite vividly before your eyes.

The Prokofiev 8th Sonata is a meditative and reflective work with only a few outbursts until you get to the finale. Korstick's account is probing and subtle, allowing the haunting lyricism in the first movement to effectively express what is undoubtedly a profound sadness: it is one of the so-called "War Sonatas" and came at a time when Russia had already lost many to battles and starvation. Korstick phrases the strange but mesmerizing first movement alternate theme with a seemingly perfect sense for its contradictory character: the music strikes the listener – at least this listener – as cold, yet consoling, as if one must hold back emotions to avoid being consumed by loss. The development section is dynamic and totally convincing, the climax featuring a crushing and powerful statement of the alternate theme. Korstick's second movement is appropriately brighter and lighter and his finale is impressive for its energy, sense of color, and the pianist's ease in meeting the considerable technical challenges. In addition, you hear as much meaningful detail in his account of the finale, and in the whole work for that matter, as in just about anyone else's.

Korstick turns in splendid performances of the Tchaikovsky and Liapunov works, the latter quite a challenging virtuoso work: not surprisingly, this etude is from Liapunov's Liszt-inspired Transcendental Etudes. As mentioned the sound reproduction on the disc is excellent. There are many fine versions of the Pictures, including two reasonably good ones that I reviewed here: Nobuyuki Tsujii (EuroArts DVD 2059088) and Yutong Sun (Naxos 8.573178). Korstick is better than both, though Richter (in lesser sound from a live 1958 Sofia performance, available from several sources) is quite excellent. In the Prokofiev 8th there is also healthy competition from Boris Giltburg (Orchid ORC100023), Bernd Glemser (Naxos 8.553021), Richter on DG, Raekallio on Ondine, and many others. I would say that perhaps only Richter may have an edge over Korstick, and perhaps not a big one. Overall, I can say this recital by Michael Korstick is very impressive in every piece and worth the attention of listeners interested in Russian piano music.

Copyright © 2015, Robert Cummings