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Russian Masquerade
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Visions fugitives, Op. 22 (extracts, arr. Barshai) [17:03]
Alexander SCRIABIN (1871-1915)
Preludes, Op. 11 (extracts, arr. Kaipainen) [19:58]
Anton ARENSKY (1861-1909)
Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky, Op. 35a [13:43]
Pyotr TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-93)
Elegy for strings [8:23]
Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
rec. 2017, Snellman Hall, Kokkola, Finland
SACD/CD Hybrid stereo/surround, reviewed in surround
BIS BIS2365 SACD [59:27]

Just when you thought you knew most of the main works written in Russia between 1884 and 1917, these four works for string orchestra come along. Of course you might well know the first two in their original forms, as key early piano collections by Prokofiev and Scriabin. Here they have been adapted for string orchestra. Rudolf Barshai took on Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives in 1962, selecting 15 of the 20 brief pieces and arranging them for his own Moscow Chamber Orchestra. Much later in 1999 Scriabin’s Preludes were arranged by Finnish composer Jouni Kaipainen, who chose 13 from the original 24, resequencing the order and transposing some of them.

The Prokofiev work consists of the first sixteen of Op.22’s twenty pieces, but omitting the original number 7, so those who know the piano opus will hear numbers 1-6, then 8-16, in the original sequence. It makes a most effective transcription, sounding right from the opening Lentamente like string music rather than transcribed piano music (the younger Barshai was a professional viola player). The flow from one piece to the next is nicely judged by the composer and arranger. The string players are clearly very skilled indeed, with plenty of the dexterity required by a virtuosos pianist in the Animato (number 4) replicated by the Ostrobothnian band. Some of the pieces are very brief of course, numbers 5 (25 seconds) and 6 (35 seconds) over before they have made their mark – fugitive visions indeed. Perhaps fingers flying fleetingly over a keyboard would better capture this evanescence in some ways, but there are losses as well as gains in most transcriptions, and even these survived well in their new guise. It helped that the string band sounds lean (without being thin) – a full fat treatment would be less effective because probably less flexible. Oramo makes the most of the lyrical moments, the slow dances of numbers 11 and 12 given with a haunting melancholy. Barshai ends his arrangement with the Dolente of the original’s number 16, reflecting the unsettling character of the Prokofiev original.

Scriabin’s Preludes Op.11 are usually seen as a tribute to Chopin (there are twenty-four preludes in this Op. 11 as in Chopin’s op.28). The set of thirteen chosen and resequenced by Kaipainen makes an attractive work in its own right. There is a gorgeous opening piece, and though it is number 13 in Scriabin’s publication, and transposed from the original G flat into G major, we can hear why it was chosen to launch the arranged work. The ensuing Presto (also transposed) has figuration that might make you suspect a piano original maybe, but these players’ accomplishment brings its own rewards nonetheless. But the long lyrical lines of the next item (Andantino) sounds like it was conceived for this instrumentation, and it is one of only four of the thirteen pieces more than two minutes long. The seventh piece, the middle one of the set is a D flat Lento playing for 2:16, and charming in its whispered intimacy, as is the furtive Misterioso that follows it. The prelude selected to close the work, the longest at 2:19, is an Andante cantabile that has moved from No.5 in the original scheme. Although its questing quality does not make an obvious curtain, the whole sequence is satisfying enough. This arrangement of the Preludes is the work on the disc that would make a really hard quiz item. Unlike the Prokofiev, this has little hint of the mature manner to come from its composer, so a contestant who did not know the Scriabin original would make some wild guesses. The quizmaster should award half marks to anyone at least suggesting that it might even be Russian.

The other two items are originals not arrangements, or nearly so in the case of the Arensky. Arensky‘s Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky was the third movement of a string quartet, albeit one with the unusual combination of violin, viola, and two cellos. The movement took the theme from the fifth of Tchaikovsky’s Sixteen Songs for Children Op.54, and created seven variations upon it. The success of the piece led Arensky to make this version for string orchestra. Its variations are not of the transformative type, but rather keep the simple outline of the theme clearly in view in each of them, so that there is a unified feeling even on a first hearing. The central Vivace, with its running pizzicato, might even be an homage to the scherzo of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, while the sensuousness of the following Andante turns the song for children into one for adults.

Tchaikovsky’s Elegy is the one work here which is not ‘masquerading’, but is heard as it was composed in 1884, although it had a later title change and then later still was pressed into duty for his incidental music to Hamlet. He did not think it worth publishing till persuaded otherwise, and it is frankly not out of his top drawer – a drawer quite well-filled enough anyway as all the world knows. But it has a certain pallid charm which is well served here. It cannot be often that Tchaikovsky closes a miscellaneous Russian composer disc with his least characteristic music, but it feels fine in this context. The long-established Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra (founded 1972) is on this evidence one of Finland’s finest ensembles, and the scale of its string band ( is very effective in this repertoire. Each piece is sensitively conducted by their artistic director Sakari Oramo, and well captured in BIS’s excellent SACD surround sound. The English notes by Andrew Huth are very useful and the disc will be welcomed by musical Russophiles, especially those with jaded palettes, as well as many others - even that hard-hearted Music Quizmaster.

Roy Westbrook

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