Virtuoso Transcriptions = MUSSORGSKY (trans. Khuolodey): Boris Gudonov Suite; A Night on Bald Mountain; TCHAIKOVSKY (trans. Noack): Romeo & Juliet, Overture-Fantasy – Valery Kuleshov, piano – Piano Classics PCL0079, 56:15 (12/16/14) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Russian pianist Valery Kuleshov (b. 1962) has gleaned a powerful reputation for his formidable musicianship, having won the Silver Medal at the Ninth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition (1993), and having prior won direct praise from the legendary Vladimir Horowitz for his transcriptions of that master’s unpublished piano arrangements, which Kuleshov subsequently recorded. These present recordings, 2009-2013, from the Moscow Conservatory, embrace the great Russian tradition for expert keyboard polychromaticism, orchestral works given piano realizations of wide colors.
Kuleshov opens with the 1988 Igor Khudoley Concert Suite after Mussorgsky’s Opera ‘Boris Gudonov’ (rec. 25 May 2010), comprised of eight tableaux from the Pushkin melodrama. Each of the consecutive numbers builds dramatically, as we pass from the people’s concern about their nation’s destiny to the personality of the conscience-stricken usurper. “I have achieved the supreme power” infiltrates much of the stormy, contrapuntal tissue, the rhythmic and harmonic tumults the rages within a tormented mind. The Varlaam Song, “So it was in the town of Kazan,” provides a kind of eerie scherzo. The “Tsar Boris” episode reminds us of the Catacombs section of the ubiquitous Pictures at an Exhibition, a journey to a personal Hell, to the point of mocking the Dies Irae. The Scene at Kromy catapults forward in the same manner as Limoges and Baba Yaga combined, a veritable staccato etude in terrific octaves. A ghostly gallop marks the Pretender, the False Dmitry section, the keyboard style well anticipating elements of the Second Viennese School. The bitter tears of the Russian people trickle in Holy Fool, rife with tolling bells. As if from some synoptic height, Mussorgsky invokes his Chimes music, incorporating the grand bells and minstrels of the opera’s Prologue. The escalating sounds and pungent sonorities well capture the “historic” resonance of the occasion, as the music fades into eternity.
Mussorgsky himself admired the Liszt Totentanz, and he conceived his symphonic poem A Night on Bald Mountain, another keyboard transcription coup by Igor Khulodey (rec. 29 May 2009). The arranger bases his piano version upon the orchestral score edited by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Bass chords and whirling high register runs and broken chords capture the subterranean and careering supernatural voices, respectively. Satan invokes the pageant and the infernal dance, and we can perfectly visualize Bela Lugosi’s gestures for the Disney realization in Fantasia. Suddenly, at the very pitch of demonic fury, Daybreak announces itself, and the subdued shades reveal their eternal anguish and tragic submission to rational forces. The slow tempo and marcato pulsation in the major mode dissipate our uncanny terror of death and the Day of Wrath. The liquid tones from Kuleshov warrant the price of admission.
Kuleshov turns to the piano transcription by the Belgian Florian Noack for the ‘reduction’ of Tchaikovsky’s B Minor Romeo and Juliet Fantasia (rec. 25 May 2013). The entire opening section – in rolling, florid arpeggios and liquid runs – captures the tragic mood of Verona in he verge of internal strife and grand romantic tragedy. The “strife” motif breaks out in polyphonic colors, martial and spectacularly chromatic. The filigree at several points precisely imitates the bravura elements in the B-flat Minor Piano Concerto. Of course, the eternal love-theme emerges, pristine, ennobled, floating on a cloud of ardent arpeggiated colors. No less gratifying, throughout, the warmly resonant tone of Kuleshov’s instrument preserves the inexorably heart-rending playing out – in sonata form – of Shakespeare’s immortal romance and its furious denouement, here courtesy of recording engineers Vladimir Koptsov and Mikhail Spassky. To characterize such playing by Kuleshov as “virtuosity” understates the matter, indeed.