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Firebird : 20th Century Transcriptions for Piano
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
(transcr. Yoichi Sugiyama) Intermezzo XIII [10:50]    
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
L’Oiseau de feu
(transcr. Guido Agosti) (Danse infernal du roi Kastcheï [5:28]; Berceuse [3:52]; Finale [4:04]) [13:24]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
, L.86 (transcr. Leonard Borwick) [9:42]
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
No.1 in E, Op.9 (transcr. Eduard Steuermann) [25:07]
Aki Kuroda (piano)
rec. 21-23 September, 30 September–1 October 2013, Odradek Studios.
ODRADEK ODRCD312 [59:03]

The first item here is Yoichi Sugiyama’s version of Mahler’s Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony, especially transcribed for this recording. Considerable pianistic virtuosity is required and this is available in abundance from Aki Kuroda, but she also seems able to provide real delicacy where needed. The transcription/arrangement, now entitled Super-Adagietto is a reworking by a composer of today of a piece over a century old prepared in terms of the possibilities available on a modern piano. In other words a new work is presented here. I am reminded that Mahler’s original would have sounded very different at its premiere from performances we hear today. Conductors nowadays give a sense of sadness and tragedy, perhaps influenced by the Visconti film Death in Venice of 1971 for which this Mahler movement provided the soundtrack. In fact it was written as a love letter to Alma Schindler.  In this new arrangement we have yet another experience but I must say that to me it is a superficial one compared with Mahler’s original, as its new title rather suggests.

The Infernal Dance from Guido Agosti’s transcription of Stravinsky’s Firebird is a fairly colourful arrangement. That said, I felt that although Kuroda provides energy in abundance in Kastcheï’s Dance, she needed to maintain a tighter grip on the pulse. This should be absolutely regular to achieve the ferocious and frightening quality of the original. Here the pianistic complexity seems to get in the way of a real sense of dynamic rhythm. She fares better in the Berceuse which is sensitively played but I felt a lack of an overall grasp of the structure and shape of the music and the contours of the melody. The Finale is effective enough and the transcription is full of pianistic colour but in the slower sections the piano cannot sustain the long notes as the orchestral instruments can. Once again the approach to climaxes sometimes seem ineffectual, with long pauses and delays preventing a natural flow; for example, at the crescendo in the final bar.

Maybe I am just biased because I heard Stravinsky conduct the Firebird Suite live in his final concert in London. I always thought he was a fine conductor: there was nothing flowery or meandering about his performances, just precision and detail, and above all seemingly perfect tempi and a totally tight pulse, which made for thrilling climaxes. Agosti’s flowery arrangement here gives great scope for pianistic virtuosity and colour, but ultimately the piano’s lack of sustaining power leaves one longing for Stravinsky’s original.

Aki Kuroda has a true feeling for the ebb and flow of Debussy’s music, as can be heard from her sensitive performance of Leonard Borwick’s straightforward transcription of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Of the transcriptions here, this was the most effective and convincing. Debussy’s style suits Kuroda perfectly, and, much as I know and love the colours of Debussy’s original, Borwick’s transcription allowed me temporarily to forget the orchestral version. It's an effective piece, apart from the long sustained first note that we are accustomed to hearing played on the flute; it dies away uncomfortably soon on the piano.

Finally we hear a performance of Eduard Steuermann’s version of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No.1. This transcription is of historical interest because Steuermann was a colleague of Schoenberg and gave first performances of much of that composer’s piano music. Kuroda gives a very fine performance and has a firm grasp of the overall structure of the four movements of the work which, as in Liszt’s Sonata, are joined. She also pays very close attention to detail and balance. The first movement builds to a magnificent climax and Kuroda copes admirably with all the pianistic hurdles. She moves convincingly among the constantly fluctuating tempi. The original version is scored for fifteen different solo instruments and this allows for great clarity in the texture — very necessary in Schoenberg’s music. Even though there is only one instrument involved here clarity is achieved by the pianist and the recording engineers.

This is very interesting and enterprising — a disc well worth hearing. The piano playing and recording are both excellent. I have mentioned the fine qualities of Odradek in previous reviews but I should like to add to those positive features the excellent programme notes and beautifully presented packaging here and in the other discs I have received.

Geoffrey Molyneux