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Nikolay RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Piano duos
Scheherazade, Op. 35 (1889) (arr. Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov) [46:28]
Sadko, Op. 5 (1870) (arr. Nadezhda Nikolayevna Rimskaya-Korsakova) [11:52]
Capriccio Espagnol, Op. 34 (1888) (arr. Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov) [15:20]
Artur Pizarro, Vita Panomariovaite (piano duo)
rec. 30 September, 1-2 October 2006, Teatro São Luiz, Lisbon, Portugal
LINN RECORDS CKD 293 [74:20]


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.

Rimsky-Korsakov 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 the page.

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.

Dan Morgan




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