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Nikolai MEDTNER (1880-1951)
Two Pieces Op. 58 (No. 2: Knight Errant [11:15]; No. 1: Russian Round-Dance (A Tale) [5:30])
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Suite No. 2, Op 17 [21:36]
Russian Rhapsody, Op. posth. [8:12]
Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 [32:08]
Dmitri Alexeev, Nikolai Demidenko (piano)
rec. April 1993, Snape Maltings, Suffolk, United Kingdom

HYPERION HELIOS CDH55337
[78:11]

 

 

Experience Classicsonline


This disc was first issued in 1994 as Hyperion CDA66654. With your permission, I'll move from its end backwards.

 

Symphonic Dances are Rachmaninov's last completed major work. In the better known orchestral version they are one of the most marvellous symphonic works of the last century. This is partially due to the ingenious orchestration, with many unforgettable effects. Almost every measure has surprises, non-standard solutions, fresh combinations of timbres. I am afraid to say, that the two-piano version takes away a lot: you see only the black-and-white silhouettes of the same images. Just imagine studying Monet's paintings from black-and-white copies! Still, it gives you something new to wonder at: the virtuosity of two pianists, that manage to almost recreate the orchestral effect. Also, some moments (trills, chords) suit the piano technique so naturally that there is no doubt that the orchestral version was the derivative.

 

The first movement is in ternary form, with outer sections grotesque and demonic, while the middle one is wide and flowing, with one of the most "Russian" themes that Rachmaninov wrote. Alexeev and Demidenko here made a decision that probably not everyone will agree with; at least, it took me quite some time to get used to it. The middle section is stated very simply, very minimalistically, without added emotions, like a white page. It is beautiful, but ... different. It's not like the orchestral version, which is a triptych with pages of more or less comparable intensity - though achieved by different means. Other pianists follow the orchestral pattern and put some weight into the middle section - for example, Ashkenazy and Previn (Decca London 444847-2) make it more full-blooded. But then, in the outer sections their robotic demons are no match for Alexeev and Demidenko's terrifying creatures.

 

The second movement is a dusky, Sibelian valse-macabre. It has a ghostly air, but its ghosts are graceful. You don't see Mephisto's sharp teeth, but feel his will behind the swirl, hear his violin luring people into the Maelstrom of dance. Alexeev and Demidenko's waltz is more relaxed and less ominous. What is really scary is the accompanying wheezing and groaning of one of the pianists. Only knowledge about a successfully recorded third dance kept me from worrying about the guy's condition.

 

The last dance starts with the dark drive of a witches' Sabbath. It is permeated by Rachmaninov's familiar vade mecum - the Dies irae plainchant, often in disguises. The Dies irae is opposed by hymns of the Russian Orthodox church. The ending is an ambiguous triumph: who won? who had the last word? whose dark laughter do we hear? No complaints about the performance in this part: it is powerful and assured, and the ending is brilliant.

 

The Russian Rhapsody, written down in a couple of days when the composer was not yet eighteen, is his first essay in the two-piano field. It was not published until after his death, although it already bears signs of genuine Rachmaninov - still wrapped in some Borodin and Tchaikovsky, for sure. The piece consists of a folk-like theme and a set of variations, some stately, some plaintive, some playful, gradually building in complexity. Alexeev and Demidenko perform it with care and respect, and it comes out as very enjoyable, though the dynamic range could probably be wider.

 

Rachmaninov's Second Suite was born in the creative blast of 1901, following the hiatus caused by the fiasco of his First Symphony. It is very different from the First Suite Op.5: gone are the romantic cooing, the sweet tears and the morning mists. Here, Rachmaninov is strong, self-assured, and even the Romance shows the love of an adult with full personality, not the borrowed oohs and aahs of a poetic youth. The texture resembles a thick Persian carpet: there is hardly a place to add another note! The mood is jubilant, exhilarating, ecstatic throughout almost all the 20 minutes of the suite, but in Alexeev and Demidenko's hands it is not arduous at all. Actually, I would probably name this the high point of their album, where their "fast and furious" approach bears all the fruit without any negative side-effects.

 

The first part is a march of chords, easily reminding of all the Great Gates and Festive Overtures of the Russian nationalistic music. The Waltz that follows is marked Presto and is more of a virtuosic scherzo, with threads of waltz woven into it. I must admit that Demidenko and Alexeev make more out of this movement than many other performers, and in their presentation the name Valse does not sound like a misnomer. Ashkenazy and Previn sound mechanical by comparison. They struggle with the music, whereas Demidenko and Alexeev ride it as if they own it. 

 

The Romance is something between Tchaikovsky's Snowdrop from The Seasons, and the slow movement of Rachmaninov's Second Concerto. Imagine a Russian barcarole. All four hands are well employed, creating simultaneous shimmering of several semi-transparent veils around the broad, heartfelt melody, which could easily come from one of Rachmaninov's love songs. Glorious playing here too, very sensitive and well-measured.

 

The Tarantella starts as a volcano eruption - and yes, it was written before the Busoni concerto. There is a veritable torrent of sound, with an almost orchestral sonority. This is probably one of those piano pieces where no orchestration can be adequate - let alone better. And the playing is nothing short of awe-inspiring. For me, this part alone would justify the purchase of the disc.

 

I left the Medtner pieces for the end, because it's never easy to write about Medtner. His music is so subtle and elusive. It is music of ephemeral shades and clouds, of waltzing winds, of constant reminiscences and interleaving references. And very, very serious and sober, reflecting the austere personality of the composer. Knight Errant is somber and turbulent, with a whole family of powerful romantic melodies masterfully growing out of the opening theme. Don't believe anyone telling you that Medtner is just Rachmaninov without the tunes! And the play of harmonies is mesmerizing. The Round-Dance is probably less substantial, but still pretty. The roundness of the dance is visible in the never-ending circling of the themes around each other, their submerging and resurfacing, like stooping and rising of groups dancing a khorovod.

 

So, let's summarize:

 

Plus: Great, great playing! You don't feel that two pianists are involved - it's like one huge virtuosic octopus, with one heart, one brain. Absolute precision. The fast parts are breathtaking. The quiet parts enthrall with their beauty of tone and perfectly felt intonations. Everything is intense and focused. Don't forget low price and generous packing. And good notes in English, French and German.

 

Minus:  Putting the Second Suite immediately after the Medtner pieces results is a long streak of energetic, hard-driven music, which is tiring. The lyrical, quieter side of both composers is almost absent: it's all Sturm und Drang. I already lamented the understatement in the middle section of the first Symphonic Dance, though I understand that this was the deliberate choice of the pianists. And shame on the recording engineers for their failure to adequately record the fortissimos! At times they sound plain and empty, just ugly bangs. Finally, one of the pianists adds extra-musical wheezes here and there.

 

Total: Forget the cons. You don't hear such playing too often.

 

Oleg Ledeniov

 

see also Review by Rob Barnett

 


 
 


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