If Mussorgsky had not written Pictures at an Exhibition, it is very likely that the drawings and paintings by the composer’s friend Victor Hartmann would have faded into obscurity long ago. But Mussorgsky’s musical responses to his mate’s pictures have given the latter an immortality they don’t really deserve. The music is immensely more satisfying than Hartmann’s often-prosaic drawings. Now, Mussorgsky’s work has become a staple of the repertoire not only as a set of piano pieces but also in various orchestral guises.
I’ve lost count of the number of performances of Pictures I’ve listened to over the decades – and Tedeschi’s recording is well to the forefront of these. It eschews virtuosity for its own sake and it’s clear that much thought has been devoted to mood and tone colouring.
Tedeschi very effectively evokes the sinister, malevolent nature of Gnomus – and
solemnity pervades his account of The Old Castle. Here, Tedeschi clothes notes in beautifully mellow tone; the playing has an unhurried, soothing and near-hypnotic quality.
There’s a delightful, peekaboo quality of children playing and quarrelling in Tuileries. And in Bydlo, the simulation of a lumbering, heavy, creaking ox cart is entirely convincing as is Tedeschi’s account of the delightfully delicate, chirping nonsense that is the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks.
In Goldenberg and Schmuyle, there’s a most convincing contrast of moods in turn supercilious and wheedling. And in Limoges, the market place, where there’s much raucous bargaining between housewives and stallholders, the presentation is beyond reproach, as it is in Mussorgsky’s take on the catacombs of Rome.
Also on record is Tchaikowsky’s Album for the Young. Frequently, one or other of this set of 24 short pieces is played by children at local eisteddfodau. Tedeschi plays them beautifully.
Henri Herz is not a great composer: his lack of depth rules him out of contention. But – and it is a big but – he is a first rate craftsman. Notwithstanding ideas and their development which incline towards the superficial, Herz’s concertos are put together with real skill. He makes no pretensions to profundity. Pleasant entertainment is his goal – and in that role he is impressive. And when a pianist and conductor like Howard Shelley takes it on, he succeeds in investing even the most trivial succession of notes with such fluency and charm, that even the fussiest commentator would surely have to concede that what Herz lacks in depth, he makes up for in pleasing melody and attractive sound colours.
Offered with great elan by the soloist and a Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra very much on its collective toes – and skilled sound engineers to boot – the result is beguiling: music ideal to relax to after a tough day at the office.
Throughout, TSO strings are in top form, particularly in the introduction to the central andantino movement of Herz’s concerto. And in the finale which comes across as a delicious folksy dance, both soloist and orchestra are in fine fettle.
Listen carefully to Shelley’s playing: it’s a joy. The fluent finesse with which he marshals streams of notes is impeccable – and, style-wise, Shelley never puts a foot – or finger – wrong. In a special sense, Shelley is a conjuror, taking often ho-hum material and making it consistently appealing.
Immaculately spun trills and splendid ensemble make of Herz’s Grande Polonaise Brillante opus 50 a memorable listening experience – so much so that at least for the duration of the piece, it sounds significantly better than it in fact is – and that is a hallmark of persuasive artistry. Listening to Herz’s Fantaisie et variations sur la marche d’Otello de Rossini is the sonic equivalent of placing a best-quality bonbon on the tongue. Its pleasures are brief but they linger in the imagination.
In the other two stand-alone works, the content is, again, mostly froth and bubble – but presented with disarming control and a sense of what works well in musical terms.
This recording underscores yet again that Shelley and the TSO have a marriage made in musical heaven.