Russian Piano Music for Four Hands = GLINKA: Kamarinskaya; Valse-Fantasie in B Minor; Capriccio on Russian Themes; Trot de Cavalerie Nos. 1-2; Polka Initiale in B-flat Major; TCHAIKOVSKY: 50 Russian Folk Songs – Cyprien Katsaris & Alexander Ghindin, piano – Piano 21 046-N, 66:09 (10/9/15) [Distr. by Allegro] ****:  

Piano virtuosos Cyprien Katsaris and Alexander Ghindin have collaborated (rec. 2010) on a delightful treasure of Russian melody, exploiting the various arrangements – by Balakirev and Lyapunov – of various Glinka pieces, 1834-1856, by Mikhail Glinka, and the 1868 fund of folk songs Tchaikovsky agreed to harmonize for the publisher Jurgenson. In the four-hand medium, the music communicates effectively in a salon tradition that Schubert claimed as the ideal form for disseminating new works, especially those symphonic pieces that required large, expensive forces to mount.

The 1848 Kamarinskaya or Wedding Song by Glinka draws its sonorities from the balalaikas and bagpipes of his native land, eschewing the Italian influence that permeates his music for Ruslan and Ludmilla. In Balakirev’s sprightly arrangement, the two contrasting songs that comprise the piece resound with jolly gaiety. The Valse-Fantasy of 1845 first came to my own attention via Nicolai Malko. Berlioz conducted the work in Paris in 1845. Lyapunov arranged the work for four hands, with its drooping melancholy waltz tune and subsequent, skittish figures that well recall Weber’s Invitation to the Dance. What the four hand version provides is the marvelous transparency of the music’s textures, an affectionate lament for Ekaterina Kern, for whom Glinka expressed his wild devotion in the epigraph to the piece taken from Pushkin’s “My Sorrow.” The earliest of the national pieces, Capriccio on Russian Themes (1834, arr. Balakirev), provides a kind of spirited and harmonically exotic manifesto of Glinka’s musical aims, which adumbrate both his A Life for the Tsar and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Tale of the Tsar Saltan.  The two Cavalry Trots and the scintillating Initial Polka date from the 1840s, and they proffer a national spirit not far from the quadrilles and military music of both Schubert and the Strauss family in Vienna.

The anthology that Tchaikovsky created drew some of its material from a collection by Balakirev and Villebois in 1866; and subsequently, Tchaikovsky’s collation inspired Rimsky-Korsakov to organize his own 100 Folk Songs in 1877. Much like Dvorak’s set of Cypresses, each of the tunes contains a germ for further development, like the lovely “The eel a-writhing in the water,” the Number 4. “My weaving girl” immediately strikes us as having supplied music for the second movement of the “Little Russian Symphony,” Tchaikovsky’s Op. 17.  “Near the gate the pine-tree trembles” takes us directly to Stravinsky’s The Firebird finale. “Break not your bonds” sound ripe for treatment by Mussorgsky. “It is not the carousing that burdens my head” might well apply to Dostoievsky’s grim narrator in Notes from Underground. The lovely bell tones of “Sing no longer, nightingale” beg for Rachmaninov. Beethoven doubtless would have created variations on “Andrey, like a nobleman was strolling.” We may wonder if the young Debussy, also a protégé of Mme. Von Meck, heard some of these tunes, many of whose harmonies prefigure his own harmonic innovations. The plaint, “How lovely, my sweet braid of hair,” could well inspire Debussy’s prelude to a maiden’s flaxen hair. “On the green meadow” and “Under the green apple tree” serve the finale of the immortal Serenade for Strings in C, Op. 48. And the lovely and delicate “Before the door, before the entry,” was so effectively utilized by Igor Bouketoff in his famous 1812 Overture recording with children’s voices. No. 49, “Song of the Volga Boatmen” only needs Chaliapin or Robeson to complement the heavily syncopated keyboard.

Mr. Katsaris dedicates this disc to the memory of Wolfgang Mohr (1946-2010), who introduced Katsaris to Teldec in the 1980s.  A lovely tribute, indeed.

—Gary Lemco