Russian Ballet Transcriptions for 2 Pianos = STRAVINSKY, BORODIN, TCHAIKOVSKY, KHACHATURIAN – Piano 21

Cyrpien Katsaris and Etsuko Hirose provide fingers and firepower to a compilation of Russian ballet favorites.

Russian Ballet Transcriptions = STRAVINSKY: The Firebird – Suite No. 2; BORODIN: Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor, Act II; TCHAIKOVSKY: Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66: Adagio; The Nutcracker – Suite, Op. 71a; Swan Lake, Op. 20: 3 Dances; KHACHATURIAN: Gayaneh: Sabre Dance and Lezginka – Cyprien Katsaris and Etsuko Hirose, pianos – Piano 21 P 21 056-N, 76:06 (1/20/17) [www.cyprienkatsaris.net] ****: 

Hearing this 2016 performance of Stravinsky’s The Firebird – Suite (1919) in Achilleas Wastor’s 2-piano arrangement, I could well recall director Jan Kounen’s 2010 Stravinsky & Coco Chanel and its dramatized (and apocryphal) evolution of the ballet music for Le Sacre du Printemps. We feel through the excellent ensemble of Katsaris and Hirose – in this world premier recording – the evocation of those colors the orchestra will realize, along with Stravinsky’s use of the 50 Russian Folksongs that aided Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, especially in the latter’s Op. 31 Sinfonietta on Russian Themes. The two keyboards literally purr in the Ronde des princesses and then explode with flatulent fire in the Danse infernale du roi Kastchei. Though I miss the ineffable harp’s entry for the Final, the song Near the gate the pine-tree trembles sings with resounding authority.

My wife happened to come by during my audition of the Tchaikovsky sequences of this recording, and she inquired enthusiastically after “the nice Christmas music.” Her reference to The Nutcracker Suite (arr. Eduard Langer, of the Moscow Conservatory) came as a spontaneous response to the fine ensemble accorded even the Danse de la Fee Dragee, the Sugar-Plum Fairy, who usually enjoys celesta realization.  The whirling Chinese Dance and the pipings of the Mirlitons lost few colors in their piano arrangement, and the final Waltz of the Flowers had as grand an effect as any Schubert conception for keyboard, in either 2-piano or the four-hand medium.  The so-called Act II “Rose Adagio” from The Sleeping Beauty comes to us in a four-hand piano arrangement by Rachmaninov, a “second-hand” assignment (for 100 roubles) from Alexander Siloti. The three excerpts for four hands from Swan Lake have Claude Debussy to thank, his having been motivated by his strong association with the von Meck family.  While we miss the vivid tones of the violin in Danse russe and the trumpet in the Danse napolitaine, the Spanish Dance has character and fervent accents, and our brilliant duo takes the repeat of the gorgeous main tune, as had Leonard Bernstein in his recording with the New York Philharmonic.

The other two-piano arrangements – the Borodin (arr. Ann Pope) and the Khachaturian (arr. Adolf Gottlieb and Victor Babin, respectively) – certainly capture the exotic spirit, if not all the instrumental colors, of the popular versions, here in a medium that 180 years ago would have well suited the Beidermeier mentality of inspired “household music.”  The alternatively liquid and rousing figures of the Borodin dances maintain their vital “chemistry,” while the Sabre Dance and Lezginka contribute their own share of primitive, earthy energies.  A populist program, indeed, but executed with such ravishing elan that this duo will likely collaborate further in this happy medium.

—Gary Lemco

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