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CD Review

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky

Transcriptions for Piano Four Hands

  • Suite "The Sleeping Beauty", Op. 66a
  • Suite "Swan Lake", Op. 20a
  • Suite "The Nutcracker", Op. 71a
Aurora Duo
Naxos 8.570418 DDD 63:12
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There's amusement to be had in listening to piano transcriptions of orchestral works. How will the complexity and color of an orchestral score be realized in a more limited medium? It's the musical equivalent of fighting someone with one hand tied behind your back. Arguably, piano transcriptions of orchestral works generally are more satisfying than orchestral transcriptions of piano works.

Tchaikovsky wrote a fair amount of piano music, but I think it is fair to say that he tended to think orchestrally. Many of his orchestral scores exist in transcriptions for piano four hands. The explanation for this is that there was no radio and no recordings during Tchaikovsky's time, and most people couldn't go to an orchestral concert, a ballet, or an opera anytime they pleased – if they could go at all. Music-making in the home was an option many people practiced, of course, and so there was a large market not just for original works for the piano, but also for transcriptions. Transcriptions involving two pairs of hands also had a social function. Back then, imagine how sexy it was to sit next to someone on a piano bench! Greater physical intimacy was permitted under these circumstances than otherwise would be possible.

Tchaikovsky sometimes lacked self-confidence, and he was afraid that the music he composed for Swan Lake would be forgotten. (Little did he know!) A transcription for piano four hands was a form of insurance that the score would survive. Eduard Langer, a colleague at the Moscow Conservatory, prepared a suite containing six numbers, and it has been recorded here. It is a sort of précis of the whole ballet. The five-number suite from The Sleeping Beauty was prepared by none other than a young Rachmaninoff, with revisions by Alexander Ziloti (or Siloti) and the composer himself. The numbers in the suite from The Nutcracker are identical to those in the well-known orchestral suite; the transcription was prepared by Stepan Esipoff, about whom I can find nothing!

The members of the Aurora Duo are Julia Severus and Alina Luschtschizkaja – both former students at the Moscow Conservatory of Music, which now bears Tchaikovsky's name. They trade places on the piano bench on this CD; Severus takes the primo (higher) part in The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, and the secondo (lower) part in Swan Lake. For better or worse, they do not attempt to turn their piano into an orchestra; these are very black-and-white performances. They also do not impose much of their personalities upon the music … or if they do, then their personalities must be very straightforward! Suffice it to say that this is not the sort of playing that will raise anyone's eyebrows – another "for better or worse," I suppose. I found their performances enjoyable enough, but I think I would like to hear this music played with greater panache. Perhaps the piano duo is a little old-fashioned now, but performers such as Vronsky and Babin, and Whittemore and Lowe were products of a more innocent era. (Using multi-tracking, Leonard Pennario also recorded music for piano four hands, but that is a special case!)

The engineering is good, and Severus' booklet notes are adequate.

Copyright © 2008, Raymond Tuttle