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Schumann's Papillons and Musorgsky's Pictures From an Exhibition both consist of a series of vignettes, so for Giuseppe Guarrera to pair the two in his Sunday morning piano recital - Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham, UK, 7 November 2021 - made logical sense as well as being musically satisfying.
Papillons got off to an impetuous start, though I would have preferred rather less overt rubato. But it had all the impetuousness, range of moods and tonal contrasts it needs. On one level the piece is a waltz-fantasy, and Guarrera kept this on the edge of our consciousness. The so-called Grossvatertanz (grandfathers' dance) which begins the final section (as it does in the later Carnaval), was Schumann's musical symbol of the cultural philistinism he set his face against. It was appropriately stolid here; Guarrera even conveyed a suggestion of it being taken by surprise by the subversive snatch of fast polka that interrupts. The epilogue was nicely understated.
The Promenade that opens Musorgsky's Pictures set off at a firm pace. 'Gnomus' was suitably grotesque and capricious, in contrast to the more thoughtful Promenade that followed. 'The Old Castle' was a touch slow, but this emphasised the forlorn nature of the troubadour's song. The repeated notes underpinning the tune had a kind of weary persistence.
The following Promenade, firmly projected, led to a mercurial account of 'The Tuilleries', though the children were perhaps a little well-behaved. In 'Bydło', the ox-cart trundled past with considerable weight, and the fade-out at the end was well controlled. The return of the Promenade here was airy, verging on the ethereal, a contrasting upbeat to the 'Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells', chirping and trilling vividly in Guarerra's crisp finger-work. His lively characterisations in 'Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle' included sharply articulated repeated notes for the latter. Oddly, Guarrera omitted the Promenade that follows. Ravel did the same in his orchestral version, but there's no reason to do so in Musorgsky's original.
The spirited briskness with which Guarrera despatched 'Limoges - The Market Place' suggested that the market-women were exchanging gossip - as per a note in Musorgsky's manuscript - rather than the fierce argument claimed by Vladimir Stasov in his introduction to the first published edition. The abrupt sombreness that took us into a spell-binding 'Catacombs' was exactly right, with the flickering right-hand figures in the section headed 'With the dead in a dead language' matching the Chicks for crisp articulation. 'The Hut on Chicken's Legs' conjured up the Russian witch Baba Yaga in all her malevolence and spite, with Guarerra producing some viciously stabbing accents.
And so to the 'Great Gate of Kiev', as it is generally but somewhat inaccurately known. Guarrera's measured approach overall gave the passages imitating Orthodox church chant a fine sense of inwardness, as well as keeping plenty of power in reserve for the big statement - and this was really big - at the end.
His encore - 'Traümerei', from Schumann's Kinderszenen - neatly looped back to where we started.
Copyright © 4 December 2021