Everyone knows – doesn’t he? – that in those dark, dark days before commercial recording, music lovers familiarised themselves with the latest orchestral pieces by playing them at the piano, often in duet versions that composers made themselves. Here Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow have chosen two of the most celebrated symphonies of the nineteenth century in offering us a taste of those times. What we don’t get with either of these transcriptions are symphonies turned into piano duet sonatas. Composers were generally eager to squeeze in as much textural detail as possible. There’s little thinning out to adapt to the new medium. Why should there be, since transcriptions were not intended for concert performance? But the result is often music that sounds thicker and clumsier than the orchestral originals.
Certainly, veritable fistfuls of notes clutter up the opening of the piano duet version of Dvořák’s New World Symphony. But Goldstone and Clemmow are alive to the spirit of the music, showing admirable poise, and easy momentum and a wide range of colour in the slow movement and sensibly opting for a steadyish tempo in the Scherzo, with its hazardous plethora of rapidly repeated pitches. The transition to the finale is beautifully managed, and that movement builds to an impressive climax, though inevitably the final mass of oscillating chords sounds a mite ugly.
Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony is, relatively speaking, a light-textured work, so the duet transcription works rather better than is the case with the Dvořák. With the texture cleared for them, Goldstone and Clemmow play with a relaxed, opulent singing tone in the first movement. Again the rapidly repeated notes of the Scherzo present potential pitfalls, but here their lightness of touch rather than steadiness of speed sees them through. The double-dotted slow movement has an impressive grandeur – and togetherness – while the galop of the finale is tautly controlled. This is highly rewarding duet playing. I like, too, the recording, which offers a welcome feeling of space between listener and instrument without seeming distanced or vague. With the cluttered textures of the Dvořák, the old trick of placing the microphone almost inside the piano would simply not work.