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Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Music for Piano Duo
Scheherazade after One Thousand and One Nights Symphonic Suite for Orchestra, op.15 (the composer’s piano duet version) (1888) [42:00]
Antar, Symphonic Suite (Symphony No. 2, op.9, transcribed for piano by Nadezhda Purgold, 1868) [32:03]
Neapolitan Song (after Denza), op.63 (the composer’s piano duet version) (c.1907) [3:11]
Caroline Clemmow, Anthony Goldstone (piano duo)
rec. St John the Baptist Church, Alkborough, North Lincolnshire, 2013 (Antar); Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, 1990 (Scheherazade and Neapolitan Song)
DIVINE ART DDA25118 [77:15]

I’m something of a Scheherazade fanatic with over thirty versions in my personal CD collection. I first fell for the piece as a ten year old when I bought the Everest Goossens/LSO version (now available on CD) from World Record Club on a reel to reel tape. I’d never heard it before and simply couldn’t stop playing it. Even to this day this recording is “how it should go” so to speak. First impressions often last forever.
 
Scheherazade has always struck me as a masterpiece of orchestration so when I came across this piano duet version I was intrigued to hear what it could possibly sound like. Actually, I really enjoyed it. There are downsides. The violin solos just don’t sing out on a piano due to the instrument’s lack of a real sustaining power. This comes as a bit of a shock and a let-down at the very beginning of The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship. The same applies to the numerous legato woodwind and horn solos scattered throughout the score and especially the glorious string tune in the third movement, The Young Prince and the Young Princess. The melody misses that drenched sheen that only a massed violin section can bring to it. Another obvious point is that two pianos simply can’t give you the all-engulfing thrill of a modern symphony orchestra playing at full tilt.
 
So what is that makes this CD so enjoyable? First of all, the level of musicianship and pianism is of the highest order. It’s a really good interpretation, full of excitement, subtlety and power. The finale is particularly impressive. The Shipwreck is quite magnificent with its glittering right-hand runs. Secondly, with the orchestral palette stripped away you do listen to the music with new ears. The absence of orchestral timbre brings one point home to the listener in stark clarity: much of the music is repetitive, especially the first two movements. The piano duet version makes this patently obvious and it’s to the pianists’ eternal credit that they continue to delight the ear despite the repetitive nature of the material. In the orchestral version, Rimsky avoids boredom setting in by using instruments with contrasting timbres taking up the themes in turn. This is yet more evidence, maybe, that he truly was a master of orchestration.
 
This recording was originally released by Gamut in 1990 (GAM CD521). It doesn’t in any way replace the orchestral version but it is a worthy addition to any Rimsky collection. I can’t imagine another piano duo making a better job of it. The sound quality is suitably big-boned and clear.
 
The Antar symphony isn’t a symphony at all, it’s really “son of Scheherazade”. Stylistically it’s very similar and there’s nothing really symphonic about it. Antar is actually another of the composer’s oriental suites comprising four contrasting movements. As good as Scheherazade is the Goldstone and Clemmow duo are even more spectacular in this sensational arrangement by Nadezhda Purgold, the composer’s wife. The music itself is more varied than Scheherazade and less repetitive by nature. It’s also probably more interesting and challenging to play. The central climax of the opening movement (at 4:35) is just as exciting as the orchestral version. The Joy of Vengeance is a master-class in virtuosity and the final two minutes of The Joy of Love are as touching and tender as you could reasonably expect. The sound quality from the Royal Northern College is on a par with that given to Scheherazade.
 
The encore is the well-known Neapolitan Song Funiculi Funicula. played in Rimsky’s own four-hand version. He was apparently unhappy with the results and withdrew it. It’s hard to see why and it brings this superb disc to a thrilling conclusion.
 
John Whitmore
 
Previous review: John France