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Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Ballet Suites (Transcriptions for Four Hands)
The Sleeping Beauty Suite, Op. 66a (1889) (arr. Sergei Rachmaninov)
I. Introduction - The Lilac Fairy [4:43]; II. Adagio - Pas d'action [5:30]; III. Characteristic Dance [2:11]; IV. Panorama [3:33]; V. Waltz [3:58]
Swan Lake Suite, Op. 20a (1876) (arr. Edouard Langer)
I. Scene [2:48]; II. Waltz [6:25]; III. Dance of the Swans [1:36]; IV. Scene [5:17]; V. Hungarian Dance, ‘Csardas’ [2:14]; VI. Scene [4:23]
The Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a (1892) (arr. Stepan Esipoff)
I. Overture [3:10]; II. March [2:18]; III. Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy [2:00]; IV. Russian Dance, ‘Trepak’ [1:09]; V. Arab Dance [2:58]; VI. Chinese Dance [1:04]; VII. Dance of the Reed Flutes [2:16]; VIII. Waltz of the Flowers [5:39]
Aurora Duo – Julia Severus and Alina Luschtschizkaja (piano)
rec. January 2007, Piano School, Berlin-Mitte, Germany
NAXOS 8.570418 [63:12]
Experience Classicsonline

Think transcriptions and Liszt springs to mind, but the ubiquity of pianos in 19th- century parlours meant there was plenty of demand for reductions/transcriptions, usually of variable quality. On this all-Tchaikovsky disc we have fairly substantial arrangements by three different arrangers. The real challenge is to bring the composer’s magical ballet scores to life in another medium, a very tall order indeed.
In 1892 Tchaikovsky enlisted the help of the 18-year-old Rachmaninov to produce a piano version of the suite from The Sleeping Beauty (1889). After tweaking the score with the help of Alexander Ziloti (1863-1945) the composer pronounced himself well pleased with the result. And fearful that Swan Lake (1877) would ‘sink into oblivion’ Tchaikovsky commissioning a piano transcription of the suite from his friend and colleague at the Moscow Conservatory, Edouard Langer (1835-1908). Stepan Esipoff, who arranged The Nutcracker (1892), is something of an enigma, though. The liner-notes reveal nothing about him and even a quick Google proved fruitless.
The Sleeping Beauty transcription has the composer’s imprimatur so it’s no surprise it’s far and away the most successful of the three. Such is its transporting charm that it’s easy to picture the work unfolding on the stage. In particular the dance rhythms of ‘Puss in Boots’ and ‘The White Cat’ (track 3) and the concluding Waltz (track 5) are winningly phrased. But, and it’s a big but, the piano sounds a little out of tune at times, which rather blunted my enjoyment of the piece. The duo aren’t helped by the fact they are recorded in an airless acoustic, the piano inclined to hardness in the big climaxes
Despite these burdens Swan Lake opens with a gentle ripple and shimmer, although the phrasing strikes me as somewhat choppy. And the overpowering Rothbart motif would be even more effective if it weren’t for the glassy piano sound. But it’s not just the recording that is disappointing, it’s the generally prosaic playing as well. Yes, there are the occasional flashes of eloquence or brilliance – the harp-like figures (track 9) and the Hungarian Dance (track 10) – but on the whole the music remains resolutely earthbound. And in the ’Dance of the Swans’ (track 8) the staccato bass notes draw attention to the tuning problem I mentioned earlier. Most unfortunate.
The fierce climax of this Swan Lake had me reaching for my much-played Lanchbery/Philharmonia recording to restore my faith in this lovely score. Of course it goes without saying that reductions/transcriptions can only be an approximation of the orchestral original – a point forcibly made in a disc of Rimsky-Korsakov pieces I reviewed recently – but here the playing, the recording and the piano sound all conspire to rob the music of all its charm and seamless elegance.
Arguably Tchaikovsky’s last ballet, The Nutcracker (1892), has some of his most enduring tunes; indeed, it’s the one ballet of his I listen to more than any other. Given what I’d heard so far I was rather dreading this performance, which gets off to a very brisk start. Severus and Luschtschizkaja do manage to catch some of the overture’s Christmas glitter, even though they race through it. By contrast the ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’ (track 14) is better paced. That said, the phrasing still strikes me as somewhat awkward at times.
While we’re still in the debit column there’s no denying the Esipoff transcription is the weakest here, although he does evoke an air of oriental mystery in the ‘Arabian Dance’ (track 16). For their part the duo play with rare fluidity here, while in the ‘Chinese Dance’ (track 17) there is little sign of the delicate, mincing gait one remembers from the orchestral score.
And that really is the nub of it; these performances are too often devoid of subtlety in terms of rhythm, colour and dynamics, so it’s all apt to sound monochromatic. Even the concluding ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ (track 19) doesn’t bloom with its customary ease, ending in a bright, hard-driven climax that burns off the last wisps of magic from this score.
Musically the performances are too uneven and sonically the recording is too aggressive. In fact this disc is everything Tchaikovsky’s great scores aren’t. The basic liner-notes by Julia Severus are barely adequate, with very little information of real interest. Normally I try to find some redeeming features in a review disc but this time there are absolutely none.
Dan Morgan


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