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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Suite from Romeo and Juliet (1938) (transc. Arthur Ancelle) [34:28]
Suite from Cinderella (1940-44) (transc. Mikhail Pletnev) [35:54]
Ludmilla Berlinskaya and Arthur Ancelle (pianos)
rec. 2013, location not given.
MELODIYA MELCD1002207 [70:24]

The Melodiya label is a household name amongst classical music collectors, but this release marks a new milestone in its fifty year history. Started in 1964 when a number of then Soviet centres of record production and manufacture were merged into one state-owned firm. Melodiya has a huge archive, but this new recording is amongst the first made under its auspices for more than twenty years.
 
Prokofiev’s ballets Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella are well known in their orchestral versions, and the former also has a popular version for piano solo. There is a pragmatic tradition for transcribing such works for two pianos as a way of bringing the best out of an orchestral score with a minimum of resources. Diaghilev would have heard ballets by Ravel, Stravinsky and others for the first time in this way. Arthur Ancelle’s Romeo and Juliet is characteristic and familiar sounding, though he is happy to stretch the arrangements to include a few extra effects, such as the knocking on wood which sets up the rhythm for ‘Masks’, and some extra resonance effects here and there. These elements have their own magic, and give the music pianistic dimensions which help displace any sense of compromise without the orchestra. After a remarkable introduction, the mighty and famous ‘Montagues and Capulets’ has the melody in unison from both instruments giving it a fiendish music-box character. Berlinskaya and Ancelle’s playing has bags of impact and drama in movements such as ‘The Death of Tybalt’ and plenty of moving tenderness in the following ‘Farewell’.
 
Mikhail Pletnev’s version of Cinderella was famously recorded by him and Martha Argerich (see review), and this disc can now be had has part of the DG ‘Martha Argerich Collection’ (see review) which is highly recommendable at every level. Comparing these recordings brings us to a minor point about the Melodiya production, which places the two pianos closer together than the DG recording. Piano duos will usually fit the two instruments together as snugly as possible, and the Berlinskaya/Ancelle sound is closer to a concert registration where the Argerich/Pletnev recording has more left/right separation. This is more ‘studio’ but also serves to define the two players more and has its own excitement in terms of dialogue. Timings are similar for the most part, and Berlinskaya/Ancelle bring their own energy and verve to the piece. In absolute terms my choice would still be for Argerich/Pletnev, simply for the expressive depth and elasticity they bring to movements such as ‘Cinderella’s Waltz’, where Berlinskaya/Ancelle are more ‘on top’ of the notes and not quite as able to float on top of the music. This is not to take away from the wit and character they bring to the music, and on its own terms this is a terrific performance which I’m very happy to have heard.
 
A separate section in the booklet is devoted to Yamaha pianos, and the instruments here do sound very good indeed. I’m more of a Blüthner/Bösendorfer/Bechstein sort of person, but the bright sound of these pianos suits this music very well indeed. I would have preferred an ounce or two more weight in the bass, but the clarity and detail in this recording is very fine, and the acoustic of the unnamed venue is also captured to advantage. With stunning playing of excellent music by this superb young Russian-French duo what more could you ask for – more please from the rejuvenated Melodiya.
 
Dominy Clements