The Rite of Spring can be fascinating or irritating – it depends on whether the performers manage to strike the right chord. Its orchestration is rich and inventive, but, surprisingly, the piano duo reduction stands its ground very well. This is mostly due to the ever-changing, powerful rhythms, which adapt well to the percussive nature of the piano. The four-hand performance by York2 duo, which was reviewed here, is as fascinating as any orchestral reading. I heartily commend that 2010 Nimbus disc.
Regrettably, I cannot repeat the same praises for the older Nimbus recording, by Tamriko Siprashvili and Mark Anderson. Their performance is less concentrated. It sounds fragmentary, and the picture rarely becomes three-dimensional. They keep same dynamics for a long time. The piano sound is watery, with metallic taste. The recording quality is also sub-par: almost a “bathtub recording”, with blurry focus and wide “flat” sound. In dense places all is mixed up. Maybe my words sound too scary: no, it is not so bad. But what is most important, the performance does not grab the attention. It is not sharp enough, wild enough, scary enough.
Personally, I always preferred the original piano version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition to the celebrated orchestration by Ravel. It is not a big deal to evoke brilliant colors when you have a huge modern orchestra; it is a miracle when such palette is produced by a single instrument or even two. In the orchestra you can use bells to suggest bells; creating the same effect on a piano is magic. Dürer’s engravings or Picasso’s drawings will not look better if you paint them. Tim Seddon’s two-piano transcription is faithful to the piano original. The most apparent difference is probably the greater weight accorded to Bydlo and the last three movements. I am not sure that I agree with all the changes. At times the fragile equilibrium established by the composer is lost: the beautiful line vanishes under the wide impasto. Sometimes, as in the closing movement, Seddon’s intentions are carried through with obvious success.
The Promenades are colorful and expressive, and the faster movements are generally done very well. Siprashvili and Anderson add thunder and echo to the Gnome. No longer are we confronted with a shy, awkward creature hiding in the corner. Instead, it is more like a velociraptor, hunting, lying in ambush and in the end securing its prey. The Old Castle is rather fast and dynamic, quite opposite to its usual character. The sound is not soft, and the mystery is gone. The Tuileries are aptly bright and impatient. The pace of Bydlo is very stable. There is no “slow rolling” feeling, but rather one of a marching army. Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks is excellent - lively and silvery, with good humor. The Two Jews enjoys good contrast. Limoges is a bit heavy. The second piano adds solemn weight to the resounding spaces of the Catacombs. The gradual whitening of the light toward the end is realized very well.
The wild flight of Baba-Yaga with her mortar and pestle is dynamic and unstoppable. The middle episode could have been more hushed – this would have enhanced the mystery. The Bogatyr’s Gate of Kiev has good weight and drive, and the ending is spectacular. Here the long-resonating quality of the sound adds to the bell-ringing effect. The performance of this part is on the slow side, which together with the second piano layer makes the music even more grandiose.
In total, this disc gave me more headache than pleasure and this is probably down to the inclement sound. If you were curious about all that fuss around The Rite of Spring, then after hearing this disc you’ll probably keep wondering. In a similar way, I was not persuaded that the second piano was really necessary in the Pictures. The playing is good, but in today’s competitive market it is not enough to be just good.
The liner-note contains a fair description of the works, as well as the history of their creation. It also recounts the biographies of the performers and the composer Tim Seddon, plus some of Seddon’s thoughts about the need for his two-piano arrangement of the Pictures.