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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Six Morceaux Op. 11 (1894) [23:33]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Fifty Russian Folk Songs: selection (1868-9) [12:30]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Petrushka (1947 revised version) [32:27]
Peter Hill and Benjamin Frith (piano duet)
rec. 2016, University Concert Hall, Cardiff
DELPHIAN DCD34191 [68:27]

In an informative sleevenote by Peter Hill, one of the two pianists on this enterprising disc, he tells us that what these three works have in common is the use of folksong, which in Russia as elsewhere, had been widely collected and used in the late nineteenth century. The pioneers were Balakirev and the so-called ‘mighty handful’ or Russian Five, while Tchaikovsky stood outside this movement and Rachmaninov and Stravinsky were from the next generation.

Rachmaninov composed his Six Morceaux when he was just twenty one, three years after his first piano concerto and a year before his first symphony. They are very varied. The first already shows the characteristic Rachmaninov, with its lyrical theme and massive pianism. But the second is percussive and rhythmic, and one would have thought it was Prokofiev. The third is a short set of variations with sudden bursts of virtuosity. The fourth is a waltz which mercurial changes of mood and a short chorale before returning to the main theme. The fifth features an anguished chromatic melody and the last is based on a familiar Russian tune first played unaccompanied, then elaborated with rich harmonies, then festooned with decorations before building up into a huge climax with bell sounds.

Tchaikovsky drew on some of Balakirev’s collection, with his permission, for his set of Fifty Russian Folk Songs. Hill and Frith give us twentythree of these. These are all tiny pieces: none is as much as a minute long and the shortest is only sixteen seconds. Tchaikovsky sometimes harmonizes these tunes in his own usual manner, but sometimes he breaks out, using modal scales and irregular phrases. One would not have thought of Bartók as being a point of comparison for Tchaikovsky, but I was reminded of Bartók’s folk song arrangements and also of some of the pieces in Mikrokosmos. Most of them are somewhat melancholy and wistful but a few are jolly.

The piano work here is Stravinsky’s Petrushka. This is the piano duet version which Stravinsky made for rehearsals of the ballet, similar to the rather better-known duet version of The Rite of Spring, which Hill and Frith have also recorded (on Naxos). It should be distinguished from the Three pieces from Petrushka for solo piano, not duet, which he made for the pianist Arthur Rubinstein and which have become a well-known pianistic showpiece. Although he never listed this duet version among his works, it is more than just a rehearsal transcription. Stravinsky composed at the piano, and hearing his music shorn of its brilliant orchestral colours in the black and white of the piano, one can more clearly hear how it is made. He also thought well enough of this version to revise it when he revised the orchestral version in 1947. In the two outer tableaux, featuring the Shrovetide Fair, one can hear how the different numbers move immediately one into another, unlike the separate numbers of The Firebird, and also how Stravinsky uses both rhythmic simplicity and rhythmic complexity to help tell the story. In the tableau in Petrushka’s cell, where in the orchestral version the piano represents Petrushka, in the duet version he comes over more immediately in contrast to the Moor and the Ballerina, whose vacuity is even more telling.

Hill and Frith brings to this programme a great range of colours and expression and a strong partnership. They can be meltingly romantic in Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky when called for, also angular and ironic and witty. But they excel in the Stravinsky: their clarity and precision displays the score with an analytic grasp of detail and their rhythmic zest makes for a most exciting performance. The recording is faithful to the sound of their Steinway piano.

In thinking of comparisons, I note that there is a recent coupling of the piano duet versions of both Petrushka and the Rite of Spring by Katya Apekisheva and Charles Owen on Quartz (review). The same team have also just brought out Rachmaninov’s Six Morceaux coupled with his two Suites, on Naďve. For the Tchaikovsky, Duo Crommelynck recorded the complete set on Claves in 1989, coupled rather oddly with a duet transcription of his sixth symphony and there is another complete set, dating from 2010, by Cyprien Katsaris and Alexander Ghindin on Piano 21, coupled with works by Glinka.

For those who already have the Hill and Frith Rite of Spring, this is the obvious partner. Others who like the programme need not hesitate.

Stephen Barber



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