Pianist Beth Levin (credit: Tess Steinkolk)

Beth Levin delivers compelling interpretations of Liszt and Mussorgsky in “Phantasmata” CD

ALBUM REVIEW:
Beth Levin: Phantasmata
Beth Levin, piano.
Franz LISZT: Sonata in B minor
Modest MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition
Aldilà Records ARCD 024
Formats: CD
Release Date: February 2, 2024
Total Duration: 72:08

Giorgio Koukl | 5 APR 2024

New York-based pianist Beth Levin has recorded two principal pieces of core Romantic piano repertoire: Franz Liszt’s Sonata in B-minor, followed by Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, on the Aldilà Records label. This pianistic tour de force is titled Phantasmata.

ARCD 024 cover art

ARCD 024 cover art

Pairing these two masterworks into one installment is a daring move and definitely an act of love toward Romantic pianism. Both pieces require an enormous quantity of pure physical strength and certainly an extremely long preparation.

Let us start with the final piece.

Composed in 1874 as a suite for solo piano, Pictures at an Exhibition was later orchestrated by Maurice Ravel in 1922, further solidifying its place as a masterpiece of orchestral literature. Mussorgsky wrote the suite as a tribute to his friend, the artist Viktor Hartmann, who had passed away unexpectedly. Each movement of the suite corresponds to a specific painting or drawing by Hartmann, creating a vivid and evocative musical “hommage” of the artworks.


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The piece opens with the “Promenade,” a recurring theme that acts as a musical representation of the composer walking through an art gallery, reflecting upon the various paintings. This theme serves as a structural device throughout the suite, appearing between many of the subsequent movements, tying the entire work together. Beth Levin makes a subtle difference between the various forms of this Promenade, working primarily with dynamic shades rather than tempo differences, a very impressive approach.

“Gnomus”: This movement portrays a grotesque gnome-like figure depicted in one of Hartmann’s sketches. Mussorgsky employs dissonant harmonies and irregular rhythms to communicate the gnome’s graceless and wicked nature. The music is filled with sudden dynamic contrasts and angular melodies, creating a sense of unease.

“Il Vecchio Castello” (“The Old Castle” ): Mussorgsky’s music transports the listener to a serene medieval castle depicted in Hartmann’s painting. The sad atmosphere of the piece reflects the solitude and mystery of the old castle, and Ms. Levin’s meditative approach serves the music well.

“Tuileries” (“Dispute d’enfants après jeux” ): Inspired by Hartmann’s painting depicting children playing in the Tuileries gardens in Paris, this movement captures the playful and carefree energy of youth. Mussorgsky employs lively rhythms and bright orchestration to evoke the bustling atmosphere of the gardens, with hints of mischief and laughter. The slower-than-usual tempo chosen by Ms. Levin might be a little disturbing at the beginning but it is definitely well-chosen compared to some of the newest recordings of young pianists, which use such places for banging a wild rhythm only for showing one’s capacities.

“Bydło”: This movement portrays an ox-cart with its massive wooden wheels, depicted in Hartmann’s sketch. Mussorgsky’s music expresses the cart’s slow, lumbering movement through heavy, repetitive rhythms and deep sonorities. Beth Levin perfectly interprets the relentless tread of the music with a skilled accentuation of the left hand.


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“Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks”: Mussorgsky depicts a whimsical scene from a ballet with Hartmann’s drawing of chicks dancing in their shells. The music is light and delicate, with rapid, staccato passages in the high register of the piano, mimicking the movements of the chicks as they dance inside their eggs.

Here again, Ms. Levin chooses a slower-than-usual tempo, with the same convincing result as in Tuilleries.

“Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle”: Under the hands of this pianist, the dialogue between the two characters, with their differing personalities and social statuses, is probably the best capture of the entire score and surely worth remarking.

“Limoges, le marché”: Inspired by Hartmann’s depiction of a bustling market in Limoges, France, Mussorgsky’s music captures the lively atmosphere of the marketplace. The movement is characterized by rapid, fragmented melodies and virtuosic flourishes, evoking the activity of merchants.

In “Catacombae” (“Sepulcrum romanum”), inspired by Hartmann’s drawings of the underground tunnels, Mussorgsky transports the listener to the catacombs beneath Paris. The music is dark and mysterious, with low, rumbling textures and haunting melodies, creating a marvelous sonical image in Ms. Levin’s rendering.


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“Cum mortuis in lingua mortua” serves as an interlude to the penultimate movement, “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs” (“Baba-Yaga”). Here, Mussorgsky draws upon Russian folklore, depicting the witch Baba-Yaga’s hut. The music is wild and menacing in the interpretation of Ms. Levin, with some very interesting accentuations, obtaining a fresh approach to this score.

“The Great Gate of Kiev” concludes the suite with a triumphant description of the monumental gate to the city of Kiev (Kyiv), inspired by Hartmann’s architectural designs.

As the first part of this disc, Beth Levin has chosen the pinnacle of pianistic literature, the Sonata in B minor of Franz Liszt. Many things have been written about this score, so let us concentrate on this particular rendering and what makes it so distinctive when confronted with other interpretations.

Generally speaking, this approach is in no way researching easy pianistic effects; it always stays in a profoundly traditional way of playing and successfully avoids the far-too-often displayed fireworks in which some pianists tend to transform this score. There is much work, so to speak, behind the scenes, and the listener can be sure that every single chord, every single rubato, has been evaluated and considered. That is what, in my eyes, makes this playing so special.

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About the author:
Giorgio Koukl is a Czech-born pianist/harpsichordist and composer who resides in Lugano, Switzerland. Among his many recordings are the complete solo piano works and complete piano concertos of Bohuslav Martinů on the Naxos label. He has also recorded the piano music of Tansman, Lutosławski, Kapralova, and A. Tcherepnin, amongst others, for the Grand Piano label. (photo: Chiara Solari)

Read more by Giorgio Koukl.
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