Duo’ says the title, thereby implying two pianos, but actually all these performances are for four hands on one piano, a trickier medium for arrangers and players alike. Nevertheless, CD catalogues are currently awash with piano-duet versions of standard orchestral works: Beethoven and Brahms symphonies, even some by Bruckner and Mahler, to name but a few. Original orchestral size seems no impediment, nor the inclusion of voices: recordings include four-hand versions of Beethoven’s Ninth and Mahler’s Second (a version of which I reviewed in October 2013). I await, with trepidation for they can surely not be far behind, Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder or the whole of The Ring.
Duet arrangements arose, of course, from sheer practicality, many of them dating from the days of scant opportunities to hear full orchestras in concert. They were, and still are too many of us, infinitely more satisfying to play than to listen to, but many listeners today happily accept the loss of orchestral tone colour, considering the gain in textural clarity and consequent enhancement of the underlying structure as partial or even ample compensation. Others may consider the exercise as much of a makeshift as, say, black-and-white pictures of the stained-glass windows in Saint-Chapelle. It also depends on the piece, and despite the names on this new disc of husband-and-wife team Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow – cast-iron guarantees of superb performances – my heart sank on seeing that orchestral showpiece par excellence Sheherazade up for four-hand treatment. (I didn’t orchestrate it’, roared Rimsky-Korsakov at a misguided well-wisher, I wrote it for orchestra!’) How could those ethereal violin solos, those majestic brass outbursts, all that percussion, be rendered at all on piano duet without a feeling of inadequacy in every bar?
In its favour, this particular duet arrangement has considerable documentary value. Rather than delegate the transcription to someone else, Rimsky-Korsakov did it himself, even taking time off work on his current opera for the purpose. Goldstone’s ever-valuable booklet note comments that the duet version offers ‘scope for more spontaneity and flexibility than would be possible with a large orchestra’, though in practice there is – thankfully to listeners familiar with the original – little in the way of whimsical rubato in this performance, and in at least one place, the normally held-back third-movement pick-up to bar 17 (at 0’42”), considerably less. Preparation has been scrupulous, Goldstone mentioning – to the shame of hardened piano hacks among us who might have strolled into a studio and bashed through it at sight – many months of work on the piece. The end result is astonishing: to name but two techniques never taught and rarely tested in conservatoires, long tremolos here are immaculately smooth, soft or loud, and impossibly fast repeated notes are faultlessly precise. Even those stratospheric solo violin notes seem to sustain better than any top-octave piano is supposed to be able to do. Things I missed are actually not in the printed arrangement at all: the soaring ‘trumpet’ from 5’28” in the first movement, tremolos to represent those dramatic one-bar crescendos on held chords from 2’07 ‘ in the second, or the colossal ‘tam-tam’ stroke at 9’05” in the finale, where, astonishingly, Rimsky’s secondo part simply has a dim. The temptation to add an unauthorized ffff bottom B at this point must have been considerable.
This version of Sheherazade is actually a reissue of a 1990 Gamut Classics release. The companion piece, Rimsky’s Second Symphony, ‘Antar’, is, however, new. The orchestral score is a librarian’s nightmare: Rimsky had four attempts at wrestling it into shape (1868, 187S, 1897 and 1903). The Wikipedia entry on the work makes a gallant attempt to sort out the different versions, though go there – or even read on here – at your peril, for your head will spin. Many orchestral recordings, labelled-‘1897 version’, may actually have used the 1903 score; this duet arrangement parallels die real 1897 orchestral score but, maddeningly, is itself listed as the second (not third) version. This is correct – in the sense of being the second of two made by arranger Nadezhda Purgold (successively of the original and revised orchestral scores, one before and one after marriage to the composer). Thankfully perhaps, only the later duet version was actually published. (Head spinning yet? I did warn you.) Goldstone and Clemmow are immaculate and infinitely persuasive in this its premiere recording, making me re-evaluate a piece I used to consider simply over-repetitive.
By way of encore, they offer – in their reissued Neapolitan Song – what turns out to be Denza’s tune Funiculi, Funicula, a tune already stolen by Richard Strauss and in Rimsky’s case dodging a lawsuit solely through being withdrawn (on different grounds) before any orchestral performance could take place. This is a hugely enjoyable piece (radio stations please note) and a superb way to end an unexpectedly colourful disc.