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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Ballet suites for piano duo
List of contents at end of review
Mari & Momo Kodama (piano)
rec. Studio 5, MCO Hilversum, The Netherlands, 2016
Reviewed as a stereo DSD64 download from NativeDSD
Pdf booklet included
PENTATONE PTC5186579 SACD [63:15]

We all do it, don’t we? Go through musical phases, that is. My ongoing fascination with piano duos is no exception. Then again, the standard of playing has never been so high, or the range of repertoire so wide. Among the fine recordings I’ve heard or reviewed in recent years are: Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung’s Brahms, Piazzolla and Stravinsky; an equally eclectic mix of Martinů, Stravinsky, Poulenc and Shostakovich from Sanja and Lidija Bizjak; the third and fourth volumes of the Invencia Duo’s Florent Schmitt series; and talented twosomes in a double helping of Shostakovich.

The Osaka-born sisters Mari and Momo Kodama, who grew up and had their musical training in Europe, are both new to me. That said, Dominy Clements welcomed the latter’s solo album, Point and Line, and Michael Cookson found the former’s Beethoven concertos with Kent Nagano and the DSO Berlin to be ‘impressive’, if not really competitive. Mari has also recorded the Beethoven sonatas and a new Falla album with Kazuki Yamada and the OSR, both for Pentatone. In their spirited preamble to the booklet notes – the word ‘fun’ appears several times – the sisters confirm they’ve played together before, but that this is their first recording as a duo.

These iconic ballet suites have certainly attracted some prestigious arrangers for piano duo, among them Anton Arensky, Claude Debussy, Sergei Rachmaninov and, in our own time, the Cypriot pianist-composer Nicolas Economou. Solo versions include pianist-conductor Mikhail Pletnev’s Nutcracker suite, attractively played by Alexandra Dariescu on a recent Signum release. In another league entirely is the complete ballet, arranged and played by Stewart Goodyear. That Steinway album – recorded by Sono Luminus at their studios in Boyce, Virginia – is a musical and sonic treat; indeed, it’s a must for Tchaikovsky fans and pianophiles alike.

Rachmaninov’s piano four hands arrangement of The Sleeping Beauty, begun in 1890, required a number of corrections and revisions before Tchaikovsky was satisfied with it. The Kodamas have chosen just five numbers, but those interested in hearing the full version might be interested in this recording from New Classical Adventure. I hope to review it some point, although the download’s lack of documentation is a powerful incentive not to. At least Pentatone are scrupulous about providing Pdf booklets which, in general, are pleasing to look at and good to read.

But those are peripheral issues; what of the performances? The first appearance of The Lilac Fairy is certainly arresting, with fine articulation, thrilling amplitude and a real sense of drama. Add to that Polyhymnia’s full, fearless recording – engineered by Jean-Marie Geijsen – and the auguries are very good indeed. And it’s not just the bravura bits that make such an impact, it’s the gentler, bell-like ones, too. Goodness, these may be artists of contrasting temperament, but they do work well as a team. Responsive to both the music and to each other, the power and unanimity of their playing is astounding, especially in that pivotal Adagio.

After that all-conquering number comes the clarity and point of Puss in Boots and the supple, bouncing rhythms of the Panorama and that ubiquitous waltz. On the whole, dynamics are well judged, but some may feel the pace is a little hectic at times. That said, this really is fun, with spark and spontaneity in every bar. Of course, these are but fragments, so there’s no sense of a larger, coherent whole. Then again, they say it’s always best to leave your audience wanting more, which is precisely how I felt at the end of this enticing opener.

Unlike Rachmaninov’s Sleeping Beauty, Arensky’s two-piano arrangement of The Nutcracker – derived from Tchaikovsky’s orchestral suite – didn’t benefit from the composer’s oversight. That may be why, to my ears at least, this arrangement seems a little further from the Tchaikovskian idiom than others of their ilk. Interestingly, Mari Kodama prefers it to Economou’s two-piano suite; she and Martha Argerich give a vibrant performance of that on a Deutsche Grammophon recording, first released in 1983. The coupling, a two-piano arrangement of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, is an added bonus.

The Kodamas’ Nutcracker has plenty of festive glitter – the overture especially so – and the march is cleanly done. As for the remarkable range and subtlety of Arensky’s colour palette, it’s particularly noticeable in the celesta-laced Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. The sinuous Arabian Dance and the delightful, very delicate Dance of the Reed Flutes are no less enchanting, although there are times when essential fantasy is compromised by the Kodamas’ unwavering precision and focus. In mitigation, the Waltz of the Flowers has just enough lift and lean to remind us that it is, after all, a dance, and not a competition piece.

Economou’s arrangement, which omits the final Pas de deux, makes for an interesting contrast. In that DG recording with Argerich the jewelled overture sounds much closer – in both letter and spirit – to Tchaikovsky’s original; textures are more transparent and, most important, there’s an easy charm to the playing that I like very much indeed. True, Economou’s Sugar Plum Fairy can’t match Arensky’s in terms of fine detail and exquisite colour, but the ensuing dances – plainer, less nakedly virtuosic – are as beguiling as ever. The highlight, though, is an expansive Waltz of the Flowers; indeed, the warmth and affection here illustrates just how forensic, almost forceful, the Kodamas are at times.

The piano four hands Swan Lake suite was taken on by the Moscow Conservatory professor of piano, Eduard Langer (1835-1905), who arranged a number of Tchaikovsky pieces for piano. It’s in six movements, but our duo play only three. The first of two Scènes shows remarkable skill on Langer’s part, the swell and sweep of the orchestral original superbly evoked at every turn. And while the Dance of the Swans is deftly despatched, it’s the second Scène that’s most memorable, both as a score and as a performance. Now I’m curious to hear more of Langer’s work; Mikhail Glinka’s Jota Aragoensa, arranged for two pianos eight hands, sounds like fun.

More Swan Lake, and the national dances from Act 3 as arranged by the 18-year-old Claude Debussy. This was written at the request of Tchaikovsky’s patron, Mme von Meck, while on her European travels in 1880. The Russian Dance is a lovely blend of inwardness and exuberance, and our doughty duo bring real verve to both the Spanish and Neapolitan displays. This is a classy arrangement, and remarkably assured for one so young; happily, the Kodamas do it full justice.

Formidable pianism, a little short of charm at times; arresting sound.

Dan Morgan

The Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66 (1889, arr. for piano four hands by Sergei Rachmaninov) [17:57]
Introduction – La Fée des Lilas [4:51]          
Adagio – Pas d'action [4:44]
Pas de caractère – Le chat botté [1:57]          
Panorama [2:20]         
Valse [4:05]    
The Nutcracker, Op. 71a (1892, arr. for two pianos by Anton Arensky) [14:25]
Ouverture [3:04]        
Danses caractéristiques: Marche [2:22]         
Danses caractéristiques: Danse de la Fée-Dragée [1:58]       
Danses caractéristiques: Le Café [3:22]        
Danses caractéristiques: Le Thé [1:08]          
Danses caractéristiques: Danse russe, ‘Trepak’         [1:03]  
Danses caractéristiques: Danse des mirlitons [2:24]
Valse des Fleurs [6:02]
Pas de deux [5:19]     
Swan Lake, Op. 20 (1875-1876, arr. for piano four hands by Eduard Langer) [9:33]
Scène [3:02]
Danses des cygnes      [1:28]  
Scène [5:03]   
Swan Lake (arr. for two pianos by Claude Debussy) [9:03]
Danse russe [4:18]     
Danse espagnole [2:40]          
Danse napolitaine [2:05]        



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