It is somewhat surprising that composers who are legendary for their skill at orchestration also made very effective piano transcriptions of their major symphonic works. I hear a lot of Ravel and Stravinsky orchestral works played on the piano (2 and 4 hands). Liszt’s famous transcription of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique was perhaps the earliest major work in this genre. I knew of these Rimsky-Korsakoff transcriptions and have even held an old score of Scheherazade in the arrangement played here.
Again and again in the past decade Goldstone and Clemmow have recorded transcriptions with a great deal of color and variety. They make no compromises in tempo, for example, in Holst’s ‘Mercury’ (Divine Art 24154) or repetitive underpinnings, as in Ravel’s Bolero (Divine Art 25057).
Here we have four hands at one piano. Both Scheherazade (1888) and the Neapolitan Song (1907) were previously released on Gamut in 1991. Antar (1868) was recorded in 2013 and is listed as a world premiere of this version by Rimsky-Korsakoff’s wife, Nadezhda Purgold. The fact that she arranged a number of other works for publication as piano duets and was a fine pianist herself gives rise to at least a suspicion that she may have been the arranger of Scheherazade or at least a major contributor to the version published as Rimsky’s arrangement.
Goldstone and Clemmow offer a tight, colorful performance that is more than six minutes shorter than the previous recording (Trenkner-Speidel; MDG 3301616). MDG’s 2010 recorded sound is better than the 1991 sound here, and I enjoyed the MDG performance as well. But the performance here is better, mainly owing to the more orchestral tempos. They also don’t stretch out the solo violin cadenzas too much. The precision of ensemble and clarity of the many orchestral voices are also to be admired.
Antar is Rimsky-Korsakoff’s Symphony 2 and it exists in several versions: 1868, 1875, 1897, 1903. The first version was transcribed for piano duet, complete with stories for each movement —all in French. It is new to me, but immediately identifiable as cut from the same compositional cloth as Scheherazade.
Neither of these transcriptions are easy for the pianists, and most listeners will admit that Rimsky’s orchestrated versions are better. Nevertheless, there is a clarity to the piano performances that can’t be matched by a full orchestra.
Finishing off the program was a big surprise. A title like ‘Neapolitan Song (after Denza)’ brings Tosti to mind, and meant little to me except that it might be a little encore to the big Russian works. That it was, and the very familiar song ‘Funiculi, Funicula’ came popping out at me. This is not the only time this song was arranged by classical composers. Richard Strauss used it in his symphonic poem Aus Italien and got sued by Denza and had to pay him royalties. Rimsky, like Strauss, thought it was a traditional folk-based tune, and he got away with it. Schoenberg also arranged it for a string quartet. Rimsky’s version is quite good, with some great harmonies; and I can’t imagine a more effective encore piece for two pianists.