Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition; Rachmaninov Etudes

Sa Chen’s virtuosity is certainly impressive, but how persuasive is she?

Author: 
Harriet Smith

Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition; Rachmaninov Etudes

  • (9) Etudes-tableaux, No. 2 in C
  • (9) Etudes-tableaux, No. 4 in B minor
  • (9) Etudes-tableaux, No. 8 in G minor
  • (9) Etudes-tableaux, No. 6 in A minor
  • (9) Etudes-tableaux, No. 5 in E flat minor
  • (9) Etudes-tableaux, No. 6 in E flat minor
  • (A) Night on the Bare Mountain
  • Pictures at an Exhibition

This is a disc that should send shivers down the spine, one to be avoided late in the evening, for fear of sleep disturbed by crones, gnomes and the ghosts of things past. Sa Chen’s inclusion of A Night on the Bare Mountain, transcribed for piano by Konstantin Chernov, alongside some of Rachmaninov’s darkest utterances and Mussorgsky’s wildest, makes for a fascinating programme. But the playing misses the sense of extremes that this music demands. Pictures is beautifully finished but curiously anodyne – as if she were flicking through a glossy exhibition catalogue rather than reacting directly to the images. Yes, she has virtuosity, power and a wide dynamic range: she can certainly play the piece, but she doesn’t bring its drama to life. Nowhere do you see the whites of Mussorgsky’s bloodshot eyes, as you do so vividly in the new Andsnes recording (page 101), and even more so in Richter’s several readings of the work. “Gnomus”, for instance, should stop you in your tracks after the first Promenade, but here there’s no palpable change of atmosphere, no sense of personal interpretation. It’s a particular issue in numbers such as “Catacombs”, where the reverberations pass for nothing (Richter is pure terror here), and in “Baba-Yaga” (where Kissin has you running for your life), which sounds merely like an étude. In A Night on the Bare Mountain, too, there’s plenty of Lisztian brilliance but little of the lurid horror implicit in the music.

Sa Chen begins with six of Rachmaninov’s Etudes-tableaux. In some ways, these are the most successful items here, but again she seems to lack a deep personal conviction: her interpretations are effective in a generic way, but turn to the composer himself and you’re struck by the pieces’ originality, their darkness and their beauty. Sa Chen is very well recorded, but musically, she has yet to come of age.

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