TCHAIKOVSKY: Ballet Suites for Piano Duo = Sleeping Beauty; Nutcracker; Swan Lake; Suite for Piano Duo – Mari and Momo Kodama, piano-duo – Pentatone

TCHAIKOVSKY: Ballet Suites for Piano Duo = Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66 (trans. Rachmaninov); Nutcracker – Suite, Op. 71a (trans. Arensky); Swan Lake, Op. 20 (trans. Langer); Suite for Piano Duo (trans. Debussy) – Mari and Momo Kodama, piano-duo – Pentatone SACD PTC 5186 579, 63:28 (11/18/16) ****:

A love-letter to the Tchaikovsky ballets comes in the form of marvelous four-hand transcriptions. 

It was the eighteen-year-old Rachmaninov whom Tchaikovsky entrusted to transcribe his 1888 ballet Sleeping Beauty for four hands. The five excerpts – Introduction, Adagio, Pas de caractere: Le chat botte, Panorama, Valse – meant to convey, first, the basic tension between good and evil, via the Lilac Fairy and Carabosse; then, the courting of Princess Aurora by the four princes. The fairy-tale quality appears in the White Cat; no less ‘romantic,’ the Panorama has the Lilac Fairy and the Prince Desire crossing the sea to the enchanted castle. The excellent Valse from Aurora’s birthday celebration brings the suite to a grand and sweeping conclusion.

Tchaikovsky himself felt that he had to correct certain elements that Rachmaninov – with the aid of Alexander Siloti – had scored, adjusting harmonies and syncopations the composer saw as incorrectly notated. The result as played by the Kodama Duo (rec. April 2016) misses little of the “orchestral” sonorities while establishing an intimate, salon atmosphere. Tchaikovsky’s interior lines emerge with a scintillating or elegantly smooth patina, as in the melodic magic of the Panorama.

The Kodama sisters confess that The Nutcracker in Anton Arensky’s 1892 arrangement set them off in the direction of the disc as a whole. The opening Overture enjoys an elastic sound, almost that of a music-box. The level of richness of texture increases in the following Marche, rife with syncopations and delicious runs. The attempt to imitate the celesta for the Sugar-Plum Fairy exacts its own magic. Ironically, when we read the Kodama’s opinion, that “a two-piano transcription can never entirely recreate the incredibly refined and specifically orchestral treatment of the original work,” we chuckle to think of Mikhail Pletnev’s startling success with his solo piano reduction! The Arabian Dance (Coffee) has a seductive glamour in its hauned ostinatos. The Chinese Dance (Tea) swirls in plastic, transparent curlicues. The Russian Trepak grabs one foot and the other and spins effectively. Quite remarkable, the Danse of the Reedpipes (Mirlitons) assumes the open color of the woodwinds, and even the low bassoon. The perennial Valse des Fleurs and its magical harp cadenzas does not end the suite; rather, the descending-scale based Adagio (Pas de deux) concludes the arrangement with a sweep and vitality that captures the majesty and romantic ardor of the original.

In 1882 Tchaikovsky conceived of arranging a suite from his 1877 Swan Lake, whose premier had not been successful, and whose status he wished to protect “from oblivion.” Eduard Langer, professor of music at the Moscow Conservatory, assumed the task of the transcription of a number of selections, from which the Kodama sisters choose the famous Scene, Danses des cygnes, and another Scene, originally scored for harp solo, violin and cello. Debussy supplies a supplement with three numbers from Act III. Both melodic and contrapuntal, the arrangements – the Russian Dance for violin solo and orchestra; and the Spanish and Neapolitan Dances – testify as much to young (1880) Debussy’s tastes as to Tchaikovsky’s genius for the balletic impulse, which he once defended against slights from his colleague Sergei Taneyev.

The entire album bespeaks a delight in brilliant music whose melodic and rhythmic treasures continue to delight anyone with the ears to recognize natural beauty.

—Gary Lemco

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