Modest Mussorgsky is not remembered for very much of his music. Opera lovers know him for Boris Godunov but also for their arguments of which version most suitable for performance. The Fantasia crowd knows him for “Night on Bald Mountain,” not realizing that they are listening to Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s efforts to “repair” the composer’s “mistakes.” However, the reflex reaction to Mussorgsky’s name is almost always “Pictures at an Exhibition.” However, similar to the case of “Night on Bald Mountain,” just about everyone who reacts that way immediately thinks of the orchestral version by Maurice Ravel. Those who follow piano recitals know better, but there is a good chance that most of them know little about anything else that Mussorgsky wrote anything else for that instrument.
Last Friday the Italian DYNAMIC label released a recording of pianist Giacomo Scinardo playing Mussorgsky’s complete piano works. This fills only two CDs, but it accounts for pretty much the entire span of the composer’s creative life. The very first piece he composed, at the age of twelve, was a piano piece entitled “Porte-enseigne Polka,” which he then published after publishing it at his father’s expense. At the other end of his life, in 1880, Mussorgsky prepared piano arrangements of two of the instrumental interludes for The Fair at Sorochyntsi, an opera he never managed to complete before his death the following year.
There is thus considerable breadth in the repertoire that Scinardo has recorded. Nevertheless, those wishing to pick nits about thoroughness may not be satisfied. In the Complete Works Edition edited by Pavel Lamm (whose piano repertoire is available thanks to Dover Publications), we see that several of his pieces went through two versions. In those cases Scinardo has chosen to record only one of them, and that should be enough to satisfy most listeners.
Listener reaction will, of course, tend to be driven by familiarity. In that respect it was probably wise that “Pictures” occupy the first tracks of the first CD. Where my own tastes are concerned, I find Scinardo’s approach to this piece about as satisfying as I would wish. There are, of course, pianists who like to play up the rhetorical grandeur that figures so heavily in Ravel’s orchestration. As a result, it is difficult not to find a pianist who does not go over the top with the final “picture,” “The Bogatyr Gates (In the Capital in Kiev).”
While it is true that, during the last quarter of this piece one gets the impression that, if Mussorgsky had been working things out at the keyboard, he must have had three hands, a disciplined approach to executing this complexity is far from out of the question. The good news is that Scinardo prioritizes such a disciplined approach under the assumption that the expressiveness will take care of itself. As the old joke goes, “He does, and it does.” This is a performance realized with the attentive listener in mind; and, even with the limitations of recording technology, such a listener is likely to encounter some gems in the details that (s)he may not have previously imagined. If Scinardo has been that successful in his fidelity to “Pictures,” then we should have no trouble crediting him with bringing the necessary understanding to all of the other works in this collection.