This release offers transcriptions for four-hand piano duet of three orchestral works by Rimsky-Korsakov. Two of these arrangements are by Rimsky himself, and the third (of Antar) is by Nadezhda Purgold, a proficient pianist who had studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and was also the composer’s wife. In the 19th century, prior to the age of recording, such transcriptions served an important purpose, allowing the works in question to be heard in the home. What value do these arrangements have today, when one can choose from well over 100 orchestral recordings of Scheherazade and quite a few of Antar! The reduced scoring robs Rimsky of one of his most widely admired attributes, his skill as an orchestrator. Anthony Goldstone’s notes for this recording argue, however, that such transcriptions can “shed a totally new light on music that we all thought we knew intimately,” and in this case I’m inclined to agree, at least in part. With orchestral color stripped away, the piano transcriptions are more revealing of the harmonic skeleton of these works, and listeners are likely to encounter previously unnoticed touches of harmonic color. The question we need to ask is not whether these transcriptions are a substitute for the orchestral originals, which they obviously are not, but whether they are successful as works for piano duet, whether we would find them satisfying on their own, in the absence of knowledge about their orchestral incarnations.
In the case of Scheherazade, I would say that the answer is definitely positive. The fantasy-filled opening pages of “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship” are effectively rendered, and despite the percussive nature of their instrument, the pianists are able to conjure the rolling waves of the sea quite successfully. They are also persuasive in the turbulent pages of “The Kalender Prince.” The love music of the third movement is rendered with affecting but unexaggerated tenderness. Not surprisingly, the pianists are not able to compete with a full orchestra in the final movement’s cataclysmic shipwreck, but they come pretty close. The rest of this colorful movement, rendered with an open texture and incisive attacks, works superbly in the hands of these excellent duo-pianists.
Notwithstanding the much greater popularity of Scheherazade, I have always thought Antar, also known as Rimsky’s Symphony No. 2, the more interesting and involving piece. The composer vacillated on whether the work is a symphony or not, and finally decided to call it that instead a symphonic suite. Given the number of program symphonies and other unorthodox works that are allowed to bear the title, I don’t see why Antar shouldn’t be called a symphony, especially since another Rimsky work is entitled Symphony No. 3, which implies the existence of a Symphony No. 2. Completed in 1868, early in Rimsky’s composing career, Antar was revised in 1875 and again in 1897. According to Richard Taruskin, the score published in 1903 conflated the 1875 and 1897 versions, contrary to the composer’s wishes, so there are in effect four versions of the work. Goldstone’s notes are silent on when Purgold did her transcription and which version she used as a basis. Rimsky’s own memoir reveals that Purgold actually made two transcriptions, one in 1869-70 of the original version and another in 1875 of the newly revised score. I presume it is the latter that we hear on this recording.
Antar works somewhat less well than Scheherazade as a piano transcription. The lack of sustained tone undermines its brooding opening, which comes across as choppy and disjointed. The rushing strings at the beginning of the second movement are not so effectively replicated by the oscillating piano notes that are substituted here, although the rest of the movement goes very well, and elsewhere in this arrangement there is much to enjoy. The clarity of the piano texture compensates for the absence of lush orchestral sound. The noble theme of the hero Antar is equally stirring in its many appearances as it would be in an orchestral performance. The triumphant third movement and the sensuous final one are convincingly rendered. Here, as in Scheherazade, the playing of Goldstone and Clemmow is very accomplished, sensitive or highly charged as required, with incisive attacks and clear, precise articulation.
The three-minute Neapolitan Song rendered here is a transcription of Rimsky’s own orchestral transcription of the popular Italian song Funiculi, funicula, by Luigi Denza. It is a pleasing trifle in either orchestral or four-hand piano garb.
Only the Antar transcription is claimed to be a premiere recording, but I have not found any other currently available recordings of the other two. Fine print in the booklet informs us that the Scheherazade recording is not new. It dates from 1990 and was originally issued on the Gamut Classics label. I have few complaints about its sound quality, although the more recently recorded segments have a little more spaciousness, color, and bass presence. The piano tone is generally well defined in all the pieces, but a bit of ringing is occasionally audible.
I found this disc very enjoyable and in some ways revealing, and I recommend it to those who, as Goldstone suggests, would like to experience these works in a “totally new light.”