Saturday, March 26, 2011

album of the day: Pictures at an Exhibition

People used to make records
As in a record of an event
The event of people playing music in a room
- Ani Difranco, "Fuel"

When I was in high school, I spent a lot of time riding my bike out to a shopping center in Greensboro that had a really good book store and a decent record store where I spent a lot of the money I made on my paper route. Among the great finds was a cassette tape of Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. I didn't know anything about classical music then, and still know next to nothing, but I could tell from the start that this 1958 concert recording by Sviatoslav Richter was a monumental piece of work.

I played that tape to death, always only playing the side containing Richter's performance and ignoring the orchestrated version by Maurice Ravel on the other. I bought a CD of somebody else playing the solo piano original by Mussorgsky, but it had none of the appeal of Richter's. When my old tape-deck crapped out several years ago, I tried to find a CD of the Sofia concert, and for years, it just wasn't available. Thanks be to iTunes. And thanks be to whoever decided not to tamper with the original engineering, despite its many faults.

In comparison with present-day recording technique and production values, this is a disaster. Seemingly every cough of every audience member is faithfully preserved on the scratchy, flattish monaural recording. My guess would be that, aware of Richter's attacking style, the recording engineer placed the microphone (I expect just one) several feet away from the piano, to avoid red-lining too much.

But Richter is impossible to describe adequately. In his hands, Mussorgsky's sorta tone-poem, sorta programmatic suite is a weird tragicomic passion play. No other performance I've heard has 1/10 the humor, gravity, energy, or meaning. Maybe Richter was just making it all up, and those staid, smoothed-over renderings (I'm looking at you, Ravel) are more genuine. I don't care.

Richter came into the concert hall, sat at the piano, twinkled around with the introduction of the recurrent theme, thence through the Gnomus, the Tuileries, the Ballet of the Chickens in their Shells - all the silly stuff, played with terrific dynamic variation (the Chickens seem to dance in stop-motion animation, very cartoon-like), and then beat the living hell out of the rest of the piece, stomping out a terrifying Catacombs in particular.

I don't know anything about Sviatoslav Richter, really, but in my opinion he was a pretty scary dude. The Wikipedia article about him quotes him as saying he believed performers should simply express the composer's intentions, but if that's so, I can't understand why his performance of Mussorgsky is so different from others I've heard.

I also can't seem to find any information on the circumstances of the 1958 Sofia recital, other than that it was recorded and well-regarded - which is incredibly feint praise for it.

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