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Russian Music for Piano Four Hands
Mikhail GLINKA (1804-1857)
Capriccio on Russian themes in A major (1834) [7:53]
Mily BALAKIREV (1837-1910)
Suite for piano four hands (1850-1860) [16:21]
Sergei RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)
Six Morceaux, Op 11 (1894) [27:36]
Sara Costa (piano), Fabiano Casanova (piano)
Rec. May 2019, Classica Viva recording studio, Dorno, Italy
DA VINCI EDITION C00201 [49:90]

Sara Costa and Fabiano Casanova, a couple in music and life, have chosen works by three characteristic Russian composers for this engaging album. Glinka, not the earliest Russian composer but certainly the pivotal figure in the development of Russian music. Balakirev, virtuoso pianist and mentor of the band of composers known as the mighty handful and utter devotee of Glinka and finally Rachmaninov, the ever popular composer who found fame outside of the homeland that he could never return to.

Glinka is represented by his Capriccio on Russian themes; he had written many solo piano works prior to this showing the influence of Field and Chopin as well as several sets of variations in a brilliant style. After spending time in Italy between 1830 and 1833 he spent several months in Berlin where he decided to take some formal musical education and develop his contrapuntal and polyphonic skills with Siegfried Dehn (1799-1858). The immediate fruits of that study were an unfinished Symphony on Russian themes and this Capriccio, full of contrapuntal writing; there is even a fugata section based on the third theme which is soon joined by the first theme. That is not to say this is a studious work – far from it; Glinka described it as a potpourri and there is plenty of joyous and exciting music to enjoy here. Costa and Casanova are clearly enjoying themselves; they judge the tempi to perfection whether it is creating marvellous accelerandi leading from theme to another or in the long build up to the thrilling final section.

I am familiar with most of Mily Balakirev's solo piano music but this Suite for piano four hands is new to me. It is cast in three movements; a noble and stately Polonaise, a lyrical Chansonette sans paroles and a rollicking scherzo. All have a strong Russian folk-song element to them but most especially the beautiful Chansonette that has something of the polyphonic nature of Glinka's Capriccio as its simple little melody unwinds. The Polonaise has echoes of Balakirev's other hero, Chopin, about it but clearly tinged with Russian flavour. The Scherzo reminded me of a hunting song or drinking song, perhaps both combined, in its boisterous exuberance. Redolent of Schumann it is once more the lyrical elements that carry the strongest scent of Balakirev's homeland.

With Rachmaninov's six pieces for 4 hands we are on more familiar ground. These wonderful early works were written the year after the first Suite for two pianos, Op 5 and with its sighing melancholy and filigree figuration the opening Barcarolle has much the same feel as the opening movement of the suite. A Scherzo is next and it is an altogether frothier creation than Balakirev's with oodles of humour in its sudden changes of mood and harmony. As with Glinka's Capriccio, the booklet writer does not disclose what the theme of Rachmaninov's Thème Russe is; the B minor melody is treated to variations that grow in intensity and bring in the sounds of bells that always held such appeal to Rachmaninov. The famous waltz from the first Suite for 2 pianos by Rachmaninov's teacher Arensky is echoed in the enchanting Valse with its dramatic changes of tempo and virtuoso flourishes. The melody of the Romance is more of a motif than the extended melodies that are such a trademark of the older Rachmaninov but there is still plenty of emotional tugging at the heartstrings with close chromatic harmonies and suspensions. If the theme of Slava is familiar it is perhaps from its use by Mussorgsky in Boris Godunov or Beethoven in the second of his Rasumovsky Quartets – maybe even Tschaikovsky in Mazeppa...whatever the case Rachmaninoff's version is glorious in this exultant piece.

As I said for the Glinka the duo of Costa and Casanova are evidently having a ball playing these colourful works and I love their crystal clear fingerwork and dramatic judgement. The short disc length, just under 50 minutes, is a minor caveat here but I have no other reservations at all with this engaging and brilliant recital.

Rob Challinor

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