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The Five, Properly Coiffed

New York
BargeMusic, Fulton Ferry Landing, Brooklyn
06/17/2011 -  
Alexander Borodin: Petite SuiteScherzo, Allegro vivace in A flat major
Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov: Scherzino, No.3 from Four Pieces, Opus 11 – Romance; Waltz, from Three Pieces, Opus 15
César Cui: Nocturne in F sharp minor, Opus 22
Mily Balakirev: Reverie in F Major
Modest Mussorgsky:Pictures at an Exhibition

Philip Edward Fisher (Piano)

A singer, Mussorgsky, Korsakov, Stasof, Balakirev, Cui, Borodin
(© Historical archives)

Ferruccio Busoni once snorted that the Russian Five were “Amateurs…, with the scent of dandruff.”

Not a speck of exfoliation drifted from the precision piano playing of young British artist Philip Edward Fisher last night at BargeMusic. By performing four of “The Mighty Handful” (a phrase from their friend Victor Stasof) in the first half, he rested his energies for the most famous work of the group, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. It was worth the wait.

For truth be told, the salon works of the other composers showed little memorable music, despite the amiable descriptions of Mr. Fisher before each one. Yes, these composers were amateurs, they did have other jobs, and, in the case of a few, their drinking habits made it astonishing that anything of musical quality came out at all.

P.E. Fisher (© Courtesy of the Artist)

But this is overstating things. Philip Edward Fisher made a splendid British effort to perform this music with measured clarity, offering, amidst the minor pleasures, some real surprises. A few pianists, mainly of Russian origin, used to include a few of these pieces in their recitals, but few are heard today.

César Cui, the least familiar of the Five, was offered with a Nocturne that could have been written by Tchaikovsky. Melancholy, languid, hardly original. Bordoin’s Petite Suite, later orchestrated by Glazunov, with an extra scherzo thrown in (and played later) was a pretty piece with a few echoes of Prince Igor in the harmonies, with sonorities of Russian bells, but rather a bloodless piece.

Two surprises. One cannot think of Rimsky-Korsakov without a huge orchestra. His three piano works were charming parodies of Schumann, Mendelssohn, and finally, a Rimsky version of a Brahms Liebeslieder waltz.

Most interesting of all was Mili Balakirev, whose Islamey was originally programmed for the recital. Alas, that idealization of Russia’s eastern tribes was canceled. But a Reverie, almost as difficult within its small scope, was equally ersatz-Oriental and captivating music.

Mr. Fisher performed them with studied, sincere and technically correct artistry. But one doubts if any pianist could get away with mere pleasantries. Thus, after a long entr'acte, to enjoy the picturesque skyline from atop the Barge, came more pictures. Specifically, exhibition pictures.

Those accustomed to the Ravel orchestration or even the Horowitz re-written dynamite Mussorgsky wouldn’t have appreciated what I felt was a truly graphic performance, and for one reason. Rather than using the piano for an orchestra or for personal pyrotechnics, Mr. Fisher played the work as a wonderful mural of fascinating paintings for piano.

He was not afraid of the long pauses when needed, he became eccentric, twisting around The Gnome to almost fall on its face. The Tuileries was a skipping picture of children at play, and The Ox-Cart made a leisurely pot-holed journey across the road.

Nobody can fail to end the work with a ferocious orgy of energy. (Mussorgsky gives only a simple ff for the climax, but nobody dares play it without adding three or four extra ffffs to the score.) Before that, though, Mr. Fisher played Pictures at an Exhibition as an appreciative art critic, surveying, essaying and transforming each image in its own good time.

Harry Rolnick



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