Conversations about Rimsky-Korsakov quickly lead to comments about his expertise as an orchestrator. In fact, his book Principles of Orchestration remains in print, and continues to be of value to composers who are seeking to develop their art. It seems odd, then, that there would be any interest at all in transcriptions for piano duet (one piano, four hands) of two of his most famous orchestral works, even if the transcription of Scheherazade is the composer’s own. However, as Anthony Goldstone points out in the booklet note to this release, “It should be mentioned that the composer considered it sufficiently important to write a four-hand transcription of the work himself, and not to delegate the task, that he interrupted work on an opera for two weeks to do so.” On the other hand, perhaps his reason for doing so had more to do with ready money than with artistic integrity.
In any case, this is a wonderful transcription, in its own way, beautifully written for the piano by a composer whose complete music for solo piano fits on a single CD. (And yes, there’s a piano concerto as well, although it is not common in concert or on disc.) Of course Scheherazade does not have the same impact when it is by played by two pianists on one piano as it does when it is played by a full symphony orchestra. Of course there are losses, but there also are gains, particularly in the score’s quieter sections, and especially when they are played with as much sensitivity and refinement as Goldstone and Clemmow offer us here. Let’s just say, then, that this version for piano duet is not better or worse than the orchestral original —it’s just different.
I love “Antar” as much as I love Scheherazade and so I was very interested to hear how it would sound as a piano duet. Who is the transcriber, Nadezhda Purgold, you might be wondering? She was, as a matter of fact, Madame Rimsky-Korsakov. They married in 1872; by then, he had completed the first version of “Antar,” but he tinkered with it several times over the next three decades. Purgold was an educated musician, and had studied composition and piano at the St. Petersburg Conservatory with Nikolai Zaremba (who also taught Tchaikovsky) and with Alexander Dargomyzhsky, who schooled her in preparing piano transcriptions. Another Purgold transcription is that of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, which Goldstone and Clemtnow recorded for an earlier release. In other words, this “Antar” transcription is an excellent piece of work by a woman who was anything but a dilettante or a publishing house drone, and it is every bit as enjoyable as her husband’s transcription of Scheherazade.
As an encore, Goldstone and Clemmow offer another self-transcription, that of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Neapolitan Song. Like Richard Strauss, Rimsky-Korsakov was unaware that Funiculi, Funiculd was not a folk song, but rather a copyrighted work by composer Luigi Denza. After Strauss included it in Aus Italien, Denza sued him. Rimsky-Korsakov was luckier, having withdrawn his souped-up orchestral version of Denza’s song because he was displeased with it. There is nothing wrong with this transcription for piano duet, however. (Those wishing to hear the orchestral version can find it on a PentaTone CD released a few years ago, with conductor Carlo Ponti and the Russian National Orchestra. I have not heard it myself.)
Goldstone and Clemmow’s lengthy list of recordings goes from one highlight to the next, and if you have enjoyed their previous work, you will enjoy this. If you don’t know their work, then be aware that these are first-class pianists with technique that never lets the music down, and with enough good taste to let the music be fun and engaging without cheapening it, making it silly, or turning it into a string of effects. This, then, is a beautiful CD, and anyone who is really into any of these works should be very pleased with it.