My initial reaction to yet another Pictures at an Exhibition was just that: Yet another? But [Boyde’s] Tchaikovsky had warned me to listen with especial attention to what turns out to be a very satisfying reading indeed. Boyde’s notes explain that he suspects a philosophical program underlying the work. Alerted by Mussorgsky’s statement that his own physiognomy could be seen in the music, Boyde understands the Pictures as an allegorical representation of Mussorgsky himself, “organised as a sequence of two single pictures and four groups of two” —the first two, “The Gnome” and “The Old Castle,” for example, “could be the reflections of Mussorgsky’s physical appearance and his psyche.” Likewise, the following images offer contrasting states: “Tuileries” and “Bydlo,” Boyde argues, “may represent carefree childhood and the burden of age”; the “Unhatched Chicks” and “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle” are unity and diversity; and so on. Not surprisingly, with these insights underlying his interpretation, Boyde makes the most of its contrasts. The opening “Promenade” (Mussorgsky himself, contemplating his inner being?) is measured, calm, making the broken lines of “The Gnome” all the more terse and intemperate in comparison. Boyde maintains this alertness to contrast throughout his performance, not so much by exaggerating differences in tempos (which tend to be moderate throughout) but by maintaining clarity so as to bring out variety of mood and color; he is, indeed, particularly attentive to keyboard voicing—you can hear him weighting chords to bring out middle voices or emphasize basses, as appropriate. For all Boyde’s evident virtuosity, this is not a virtuoso’s performance; instead, it’s an illuminating attempt to get beyond Mussorgsky’s words, behind the notes. And it succeeds admirably.
To couple Pictures with Miroirs is clever wordplay that also works on musical terms: Despite the obvious differences in language, Ravel is also concerned with projecting mood, evoking associations. And again Boyde’s interpretation reaches beyond virtuosity to let the music speak through the contrasts realized in the clarity that his remarkable technique permits.
Excellent piano tone from Athene-Minerva’s production team—there are some wonderfully sonorous passages, though Boyde’s ferocious imitation of guitar rasgueado in “Alborada del gracioso” reveals that the piano itself is only just up to the mark (it doesn’t show elsewhere). I don’t often find myself writing about such mainstream material, but when something of this quality comes along, I am glad to be reminded of what I am missing.