In the LP days Linn’s
LP12 turntable was the hi-fi equivalent of the Holy Grail. It’s
therefore gratifying to see this Scottish company continuing
to support high-quality audio in the form of SACD. Given its
provenance this disc ought to be sonically impressive but of
course technical wizardry count for little if the performances
are less than first rate.
The pianists are
certainly distinguished enough. Lisbon-born Pizarro was something
of a prodigy, making his debut at the tender age of 4 and launching
his international career after winning the 1990 Leeds Piano
competition. His co-pianist, the Lithuanian Vita Panomariovaite,
won a scholarship to study with him at the Guildhall School
of Music and Drama in 1998 and has since embarked on an international
career of her own.
was good at orchestrating other people’s scores but was he as
adept with his own music? No, is the short answer. The booklet
is quite candid about this, quoting Rimsky biographer Gerald
Abrahams’ remark about the ‘negligible value’ of the solo piano
pieces. Rimsky was no slouch, dashing off an arrangement of
Scheherazade in just a fortnight. The sinuous orientalism
and kaleidoscopic colours of the orchestral score show the composer
at his most exotic, so it’s a pity the piano duo sounds so monochrome
by comparison. The pianists do tease out a degree of sensuousness
but the result isn’t particularly seductive. Like Scheherazade
they need to be much more beguiling than this to sustain the
narrative over four movements.
The recording venue
sounds rather dry and the piano somewhat lacking in weight.
The treble is beautifully rendered, with no hint of brittleness
or glare. Granted, part of the problem is that Rimsky’s distribution
of the piano parts is biased towards the top end of the keyboard,
which makes for a lightweight sound. As a recording balance
it is easy on the ear, not always the case with piano works.
The downside is that the playing is apt to sound a little lifeless.
The more animated
writing of the Lento is crisp and clear but again there is a
noticeable lack of colour, of tonal shading. The Andantino is
more successful, with some lovely liquid playing and more of
a sense of enchantment, of a spell being cast: Just listen to
those bright splashes of colour, those sinuous, swirling melodies.
The final movement
of the orchestral Scheherazade – Allegro molto – has
some of Rimsky’s most exuberant writing, so a piano arrangement
was always going to be a challenge. Not surprisingly those cascading
orchestral harmonies are only hinted at here, although the music’s
glitter and sparkle are well conveyed in the clear, natural
treble. Rhythmically the movement is alert enough, but in spite
of these positives the music resolutely refuses to leap off
Rimsky’s 1892 opera
Sadko first appeared in 1870 as an orchestral score and
piano duo, the latter arranged by his wife Nadezhda. Her approach
is more harmonically arresting, with more light and shade than
her husband could quite manage in Scheherazade. As Peter
Avis points out in his liner-notes the distribution of piano
parts is better balanced, which may account for the work’s more
varied colour palette. Even then it’s not terribly memorable
music and, accomplished as the playing is, nothing can disguise
the thinness of the material.
Of all the works
on this disc Capriccio Espagnol is probably the most
successful, both as an arrangement and as a performance. There
is a concentration here, an awareness of rhythmic subtlety,
that is most impressive. Panomariovaite won a Joaquin Rodrigo
prize in 2004, so this is an idiom she must know well. Structurally
this arrangement seems much more convincing too, with a real
ebb and flow missing until now, not to mention a vigour and
sparkle that makes this feel less like an arrangement and more
like a work in its own right. There is a disconcerting moment
at 2:00 in the Scena e canto gitano, where the rippling melody
sounds remarkably like the opening to ‘Dawn’, the first of Britten’s
Four Sea Interludes.
So, not quite in
the demonstration class in terms of performance, but then this
is hardly vintage Rimsky. In any case this is the sort of repertoire
the majors tend to ignore, so Linn must be commended for recording
it in the first place. Sonically there are no nasties to speak
of, though the SACD layer is not as atmospheric and three-dimensional
as one might expect. At least this isn’t one of those bright,
fatiguing piano recordings. That, coupled with a thoroughly
invigorating Capriccio Espagnol, makes this worth investigating.