Polish composer Karol Szymanovski (1882-1937) faced a rich musical legacy that for him was kind of a musical straitjacket. He successfully tried to get rid of it. The piano works on this CD belong to the early and middle periods of the composer, although it is known that in the third period (after 1917) he composed only a few piano works, some Polish Dances and Mazurkas. The Italian pianist Andrea Vivanet plays with great skill and commitment as well as a feeling for the special sound of the short pieces included in his programme. Each of these miniatures can exist on its own, but together they form a rich, multifaceted spectrum with calmer and more powerful, rhythmically brilliant and intimate moments. Andrea Vivanet gives a strong and individual profile to the various pieces, thus taking the listener on an interesting journey through the piano music of the Polish composer.
Andrea Vivanet has made one previous recording—a Sheva Collection album containing Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin and Tchaikovsky’s “Grand” Piano Sonata—that was not reviewed here, but is listed on Amazon, though as currently unavailable. So, for all practical purposes, Vivanet’s new Centaur release may be viewed as his debut album on a mainstream commercial label.
The Italian-born Vivanet now makes his home in Paris, where he pursues an active performing and teaching career. Early training in Italy, followed by study at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest led, inevitably, to the competition circuit, where Vivanet earned a number of prestigious prizes. Name recognition, in turn, then led to concert engagements in Denmark, France, Greece, Hungary, and Russia.
Centaur’s enclosed foldout flyer gives the title of Bartók’s Frescobaldi arrangement merely as Toccata, which is about as helpful as identifying a keyboard piece by Scarlatti simply as Sonata. Fortunately, it didn’t take much digging to discover that the Frescobaldi piece in question is the Toccata sopra i pedali per l’organo e senza, F 3.05, and it’s not only a strikingly handsome piece, it’s also a remarkably prescient prelude to the postlude of Vivanet’s program; hear the uncanny similarity between Frescobaldi’s grand processional Toccata and the concluding “Bogatyr Gates of Kiev” from Mussorgsky’s Pictures. It’s almost freakish, and if it was an accident that Vivanet picked it to open with, it was an accident most serendipitous.
Bartók’s Dance Suite and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition make no stranger discmates, I reckon, than Vivanet’s previously paired Ravel and Tchaikovsky album. Originally conceived as an orchestral work, Bartók composed his Dance Suite in 1923 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the unification of the cities of Buda and Pest to become the Hungarian capital. It was only in response to a commission two years later from the publisher that Bartók made a solo piano reduction of the orchestral score, but he never performed it himself, and no one else did either, until the composer’s friend György Sándor presented it in public for the first time in March 1945, just a few months before Bartók’s death. As piano reductions of orchestral works go, Bartók’s Dance Suite has never topped the charts, and has made relatively few appearances on record; so, while Vivanet doesn’t have the field entirely to himself, he doesn’t face the fierce competition he does in the Mussorgsky.
Bartók’s Suite is cast is six movements, each of which is based on a folk melody native to Hungary or the Wallachian region of Romania, with one of the movements, No. 4, derived from an Arabian dance. The final movement weaves the melodic material of the previous five movements together, lending a kind of cyclic summation to the work. Most interesting, however, is the “missing link.” Bartók originally sketched a seventh movement, titled “Slovakian Dance,” which was to have come between the second and third movements, but he decided to drop it before even orchestrating it. The odd thing is that remnants of the rejected movement are referenced at the ends of the first, second, and fourth movements, like decoy signposts that point to a ghost town that isn’t there anymore.
As noted above, Bartók’s Dance Suite hasn’t been much of a magnet for pianists. ArkivMusic currently lists only seven recordings, and of those the only one I have is on Volume 7 of Zoltán Kocsis’s eight-disc Philips survey of Bartók’s complete works for solo piano. One might expect the Hungarian Kocsis to have an edge over Vivanet in music by his fellow countryman, but I find Vivanet every bit as alive to the aboriginal folk elements of the music and to its barely domesticated wildness.
When it comes to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, I freely admit that I am daunted and disadvantaged in the presence of Fanfare colleague David DeBoor Canfield, whose recordings of the piece, like Don Giovanni’s conquests in Spain alone, number 1,003! There’s no denying it; David is the Don of Mussorgsky’s Pictures. Probably like most readers of a certain age, I first came to know the piece in Ravel’s orchestration, possibly the most creative, colorful, and skillful transcription of a piano work ever accomplished. Yet, over time, I came first to appreciate and then to love Mussorgsky’s original piano version even more.
Obviously, Andrea Vivanet is up against some very serious competition here, not least of which are three fairly recent entries from Freddy Kempff (32:2), Michael Korstick (39:4), and the extraordinarily gifted young French pianist Blandine Waldmann (42:4). Kempff’s disc belongs in every piano collection, not just for “a reading of phenomenal color and theatricality” (Peter Burwasser), but for a program that also includes the two dueling works—at the time—for the title of most difficult piano piece every written, Balakirev’s Oriental Fantasy, “Islamey,” vs. Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit. Korstick’s Pictures impressed me most by its sense of timing, not in terms of duration, but in the gait of the Promenades and the spaces between the pictures that created an atmosphere of the gallery and of taking the time to imbibe and appreciate the essence of each portrait. Blandine Waldmann’s Pictures is, in a way, the ideal balance between Kempff’s color and theatricality—her “Gnomus” downright creepy, and her “Hut on Fowl’s Legs” proof positive that Big Bird lives—while her gait through the gallery, like Korstick’s, is perfectly timed so that the Promenades allow us to digest the portrait we’ve just left behind, while creating expectation for the one we’re about to come to next.
All three of these outstanding performances of the Mussorgsky make a high hill for Andrea Vivanet to climb, but he climbs it valiantly and plants his flag proudly at the top alongside those of the others. At first, I thought his opening Promenade sounded a bit brisk, but as I listened on through the rest of the piece, it gradually dawned on me that Vivanet was doing something interesting that I don’t believe I’ve heard anyone else do in quite the same way. It feels as if he has found a common metric/tempo denominator that underlies the Promenade and each of the Pictures, so that you could start your metronome at a given setting and not have to change it throughout because each movement is at that beat or some proportion thereof—half, double, etc. This gives the entire work, from beginning to end, a feeling of unity and of being all of a piece that is unique in my experience.
To accomplish this, Vivanet must make some compromises. The Promenades, as noted, seem a bit brisk, while “Tuileries” and “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” are ever so slightly more leisurely than they’re often taken, and “Limoges” is ever so slightly quicker. In other words, Vivanet is adjusting to the mean so as to preserve the overarching, controlling Takt.
Was this Mussorgsky’s plan all along? Given his addiction to vodka, and his often inebriated state, it’s doubtful that mathematical abstractions of meter and tempo equations impinged upon the heat of his musical deliriums, but Vivanet brings a rhythmic perspective to Pictures, which, when added to his technical brilliance and graphic depiction of the score, paint the work in a most illuminating light.
In Vivanet’s hands, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is more than a collection of loosely related movements partially held together by the Promenade; it emerges as an integral whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. This is everything the piece can and should be. An outstanding accomplishment.