What is the point of listening to a piano transcription of a hugely popular orchestral work? I think the answer is quite simply that it allows the listener to concentrate on the musical detail rather than have the sound of the orchestra wash over them in a huge auditorium. There is an intimacy in this present recording of these two major works that is denied to any orchestral performance. At one time, transcriptions were much more popular than today: think of Liszt’s cycle of the Beethoven symphonies, for example. In an age when it was not possible to hear music on the radio or gramophone or when one was limited to a handful of major orchestral venues it was often the only way people could get to hear these works.
There can be few readers of these pages who have not heard Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s magical score Scheherazade . This symphonic suite, which the composer called a ‘kaleidoscope of fairy tale pictures of Oriental character’, was completed in 1888. The work was first heard in St Petersburg on 18 December of the same year. The Suite was inspired by the Arabian Nights Entertainment which posited a certain Sultan Shahriar who had become suspicious of all women and had sworn to take a new wife each day and dispose of her after their wedding night. Scheherazade, who was finally to become the Sultan’s wife, managed to avoid this fate by relating fantastic stories to her husband, who became so curious to hear how they ended that he allowed her respite day by day until a thousand and one nights had passed and the threat of death was finally lifted.
Rimsky-Korsakov had originally given ‘musical’ titles to each of the four movements – Prelude, Ballade, Adagio and Finale, but abandoned this in favour of the better-known descriptive titles that concert-goers are so familiar with today – ‘The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship’; ‘The Story of the Kalendar Prince’; ‘The Young Prince and the Young Princess’ and finally ‘The Festival of Baghdad-The Sea-The Shipwreck’. The music is given a sense of continuity by the use of two linking themes.
What is not so well-known is that Rimsky-Korsakov produced a four-handed piano score of this work. The liner-notes suggest that he regarded this task as being so important that he postponed work on an opera rather than delegate it to a jobbing musician. The result is a hugely attractive version of this favourite work. There are more than a 120 recordings of the orchestral suite in the current catalogues, however this present recording appears to be the only one of the piano transcription currently available. This performance was originally recorded and released in 1990.
Oriental legends also suffuse Rimsky-Korsakov’s Second Symphony, op.9 ‘Antar’. Antar saves a gazelle from a wicked monster. The gentle creature runs away leaving the hero resting on a grassy slope. Finally he drops off to sleep. On waking, Antar finds himself in a great palace which is the home of the Queen of Palmyra, the fairy Guel-Nazar. The interesting bit of the story is that this fairy is none other than the gazelle that Antar had saved. She promises him the three greatest delights of the world. At this point Antar awakens on the hillside.
Although this work is officially classified as a symphony, it is really a symphonic suite. There are four movements: the first pictures the desert, the rescue and the bestowing of the gifts. The remainder of the work is a consideration of these gifts –The Joy of Vengeance, The Joy of Power and the Joy of Love. The ‘suite’ concludes with Antar’s death. Stylistically this work owes much to Berlioz, Liszt and even Wagner.
The ‘Antar’ transcription is by Nadezhda Purgold (the composer’s wife). She also produced four-hand piano versions of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bare Mountain and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet which have been recorded by the Goldstone/Clemmow team.
I do not know Rimsky-Korsakov’s Antar, Symphonic Suite well in its orchestral guise, so I do not really appreciate the appropriateness of the transcription. However, taken at face value this four-handed work is interesting, absorbing and extremely colourful.
The final number on this fascinating CD is the Neapolitan Song, after Luigi Denza (1846-1922), possibly better known as ‘Funiculì Funiculà’ which is played in the composer’s own four-hand version. It is most often heard played by André Rieu these days, but there is a fine orchestral version by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Roger Norrington. The present four-hand piano version is a sheer delight and would seem destined to bring the house down when played as an encore. It is hard to imagine that Rimsky-Korsakov was actually dissatisfied with his arrangement and withdrew it at the last moment. I agree with Anthony Goldstone that the composer’s ‘self-criticism seems unjust’. It makes a great finish to a captivating CD.
Everything about this disc is ideal. The liner-notes, by Anthony Goldstone are most helpful and present a strong case for the playing of these transcriptions. The quality of the sound is clear and vibrant throughout allowing every nuance and detail to be clearly heard. The playing by Goldstone and Clemmow is superb: enthusiasm, subtlety and a concern for the works’ inherent exuberance are perfectly balanced.