RACHMANINOV: The Transcriptions = RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Flight of the Bumble Bee; KREISLER: Liebesleid; Liebesfreud; BIZET: Minuet; SCHUBERT: Wohin? MUSSORGSKY: Hopak; BACH: Violin Partita in E Major; RACHMANINOV: Daisies; Lilacs; Polka de WR; Vocalise (arr. Koscis); TCHAIKOVSKY: Lullaby; MENDELSSOHN: Scherzo – Howard Shelley, p. – Helios CDH55458, 52:36 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] (11/19/13) ****:

Recorded 20-22 February 1991, this assemblage of Rachmaninov piano transcriptions was issued on the Hyperion label in London later that year. Rachmaninov in his art of transcription combined his Slavonic wit and temperament with his virtuoso capacity for huge spans, adjusting the music for the capacities of his singular hands. He began making arrangements of others’ music in 1900, beginning with the Minuet from Bizet’s L’arlesienne Suite No. 1. Howard Shelley (b. 1950) has been a Rachmaninov specialist, having performed in 1983 the complete Rachmaninov solo piano oeuvre in concert.

Shelley opens with fleet renditions of the Rimsky-Korsakov Bumble Bee (trans. 1929) and Kreisler’s Liebesleid (trans. 1921), the latter lilting in sentiment tropes of Viennese whipped cream. Kreisler’s Liebesfreud (trans. 1925) leaps out aggressively, a Viennese etude in crisp accents and syncopations. The aforementioned Bizet quite sparkles in its keyboard transcription, especially as Rachmaninov cannily shifts the registers so that the main bouncing theme and carillon secondary subject act in dialogue. Recording engineer Antony Howell has done fine service in capturing the ringing sonority of the Steinway instrument without permitting its often keening upper partials to shatter. The Schubert song “Wohin?” (Whither) certainly has Rachmaninov well-versed (trans. 1925) in the body of Liszt responses, and we might attribute the liquid arpeggios to that master.

The explosive Hopak of Mussorgsky (trans. 1923) has remained quite popular with various instrumentalists, including Nathan Milstein, who loved its violin possibilities. The most famous of Rachmaninov’s Bach transcriptions remains his 1933 treatment of three movements from the Partita No. 3 in E, BWV 1006, among the last of his arrangements for his touring repertory.  Shelley conjures a brilliant, plastic motion for the opening Prelude, the repeated notes and the canonic effects in voluptuous stretti. The staid rhythm of the Gavotte in double notes enjoys a light, deft motion; the airy legato that Shelley produces proves transparently captivating. The singing line of the concluding Gigue, flexible and basking in clarion peals of chords in competing registers, ends this effective tribute to Baroque invention.

Rachmaninov’s penchant for delicate melodic tissue comes to the fore in his song Daisies (trans. 1924), the transparent tissue indebted to Chopin and Debussy. His Lilacs (orig. trans. 1914) has more in common with the Op. 23 Preludes, rife with perfumed arpeggios and shimmering trills.  Shelley performs the second version of the piece the composed made in 1941. The 1911 Polka de WR derives from a piece by Franz Behr, a waltz in 2/4 in A-flat Major that Rachmaninov adapted for its sleight of hand metrics and slightly drunken effect. Shelley executes this subtle, often tricky piece with lavish aplomb, moving to the distant Meno mosso in C-sharp Minor with a glossy finesse. Perhaps only Shura Cherkassky squeezes more eccentric juice from this ironic showpiece. The 1933 Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream stands among the most famous of the Rachmaninov transcriptions, and the running figures make for Shelley’s deft application of speed, accent, and nuance.

The fact that Rachmaninov had begun his career in transcription with an 1883 piano-duet reduction of the Tchaikovsky Manfred Symphony seems to find closure in his setting, in 1941, Tchaikovsky’s extended piano solo Lullaby, Op. 16, No. 1. Much of the broken figuration may have informed Rachmaninov’s Etudes-Tableaux, especially in the rich texture of the bass line. Shelley concludes with a familiar piece the composer never transcribed to the keyboard himself: the 1916 Vocalise for soprano. Hungarian virtuoso Zoltan Koscis supplied the arrangement of this exalted melody in binary form and a brief coda. Shelley imbues the work with the same intimacy that we associate with Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess.

—Gary Lemco