Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Shéhérazade, Suite Symphonique op.35 (1886 arr. 1889) [48:15]
Arthur HONEGGER (1892-1955)
Pacific 231 (1923 arr. 1924) [6:02]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Bolero (1928 arr. 1929) [14:00]
Piano Duo Trenkner-Speidel (Evelinde Trenkner and Sontraud Speidel)
rec. Ehem, Ackerhaus der Abtei Marienmünster 10-11 March 2010. DDD.

This is one of those interesting disks which the advent of CD has occasionally given us; most welcome it is too. Here are three orchestral works, so orchestral that it’s impossible to believe that they could exist in any other form. Therefore, how can an arrangement for any other combination of instruments be expected to work? In the 19th century orchestral music was regularly arranged for piano solo or duet, for home consumption. I am not thinking here of Liszt’s virtuoso transcriptions, because the chance of actually managing to hear the pieces were few and far between. Today this isn’t necessary, but as recently as the 1920s it still was - Ravel’s own arrangement of Bolero, for instance, appeared before his recording of it in 1932.

But there are good reasons for us to listen to these arrangements, especially when they are by the composers - or, in the case of Rimsky, it may be by his wife - for they must have wanted to do them and impart new information to the public. The most important thing about these arrangements is that they focus the mind entirely on the music, for there is none of the colourful orchestration to engage the mind and allow it to simply enjoy the effect and not notice the process.

Shéhérazade works remarkably well in this version. The Duo, occasionally, choose tempi which are slower than we are used to - that’s the trouble with a piece so well known, we expect certain things, such as constant and regular tempi. I wondered if it is sometimes difficult to get the fingers around all the notes. However … The first movement’s allegro section has a tendency to plod, and at 4:49, where the solo violin would enter, the tempo is held back and slowed down even more! At the ensuing tutti at 5:12 the pianists really let go and we find ourselves at the correct tempo! However, after this splendid sound, at 6:56 the brakes are applied and we’re back at the slower tempo where the feel is static, with little real impression of movement, despite the music being played. The next tutti sees the tempo increase. It’s all rather unsatisfactory because in an orchestral performance no one would dream of pulling the music about to this extent. It doesn’t need it, and it’s written in such a way as to be obvious what you have to do to interpret the music. The second movement is much better, with a real sense of urgency and there’s bags of forward momentum. Here the Duo’s use of rubato feels much more spontaneous than in the first movement. The portrait of the young Prince and Princess, which makes up the third movement, is splendid, slightly understated and marvellously delicate. The finale is well handled and the climax is achieved with some success and the absence of a gong! The ending is very evocative and quite beautiful.

Pacific 231, Honegger’s paean of praise to the steam train, is one of the most literal depictions in music of anything I know. You can almost smell the smoke and feel the motion as the wheels clatter across the rails. It shows the progress of a big steam engine at speed which has to make an emergency stop at the end. It’s nowhere near as exciting, nor does it work particularly well, for piano duo. This music really does need the orchestra. The Duo plays it well and it’s enjoyable but I think I shall return to the original version for lasting pleasure.

That Bolero doesn’t bore one in the orchestral version is simply because Ravel had such an acute ear for orchestral sonority that he carries one away by the sheer verve of his instrumental invention. You would think that a version of Bolero for piano duet would not have the ability to remain interesting, but it does, and that is thanks to Ravel’s understanding of the keyboard. Trenkner-Speidel give a very good performance of the piece, and it is exciting and powerful.

The sound is very good, and the notes excellent. This is something of a specialist issue and not for everyone, but if you feel you need to delve further into these pieces these performances will open many doors for you.

Bob Briggs

Something of a specialist issue… see Full Review