February 07, 2008


Stravinsky: Piano Music—Piano-Rag-Music (1919); Circus Polka (1941-2); Piano Sonata (1924); Serenade in A (1925); Tango (1940); Four Etudes, Op. 7 (1908); Scherzo (1902); Piano Sonata in F sharp minor (1903-4). Victor Sangiorgio, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Tchaikovsky: Ballet Suites for Piano Four Hands—The Sleeping Beauty; Swan Lake; The Nutcracker. Aurora Duo: Julia Severus and Alina Luschtschizkaja, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

      The new Naxos CD of Stravinsky’s piano music – actually a re-release of a Collins Classics CD from 1993 – provides a fine opportunity to survey the composer’s output for the instrument on which he worked incessantly while composing his orchestral works. The piano was crucial to Stravinsky’s compositional method, but he did not write much solo music for it; and there is little of the stylistic development in the solo piano works that is evident in his works for orchestra. Perhaps for this reason, Stravinsky’s piano music is not played very frequently – but Victor Sangiorgio does play it often (it is one of his specialties), and he has clearly mastered its tremendous complexities, which include pure virtuosity, frequent rhythmic changes, and the two hands playing in different (and changing) meters for long stretches of notes. Because Sangiorgio has such a good technique for this music, he makes it easy to focus on what Stravinsky had to say rather than on how he said it. And if it turns out that Stravinsky had less to say in these works than in ones for larger forces, it is nevertheless quite interesting to hear this less-known side of the composer. The best way to present this CD would have been chronologically, making it easy (without shuffling the tracks) to hear what development there was in the music. Unfortunately, the random arrangement of the pieces reflects no apparent rationale, and leads to a CD that concludes with one of Stravinsky’s weakest works, the large-scale, four-movement Piano Sonata of 1903-4, whose outer movements are bombastic and derivative (although its inner ones show some cleverness and charm). The latest work here, Circus Polka, would have made a fine encore: commissioned by Barnum and Bailey, and including a brief and wholly unexpected touch of the Radetzky March, it is a delightful trifle. Piano-Rag-Music is a trifle, too, but an interesting one for the way it deconstructs ragtime rather than participating in it; while the 1940 Tango is moody rather than dancelike. The 1924 Piano Sonata has much cleaner and clearer lines than the earlier one and even includes a two-part invention. The Serenade of 1925 is not so much in A as around A, and each of its four movements was written to fit on a 78-rpm record – a restriction that did not hamper Stravinsky’s creativity at all. The Four Etudes are mostly reminiscent of Scriabin and Rachmaninoff, but the fourth perks along in a more purely Stravinskian manner. The earliest work here, the Scherzo of 1902, sounds a bit like Tchaikovsky – and in fact, many of these piano pieces sound like or deliberately pay tribute to works by other composers. Stravinsky was not a great solo-piano composer, but the unusual and interesting nature of these pieces, and Sangiorgio’s excellent playing of them, certainly earn the CD its (++++) rating.

      The Tchaikovsky CD is harder to rate. For sheer pianism, for beauty of tone and agility of finger work, Julia Severus and Alina Luschtschizkaja definitely deserve (++++). But it is difficult to give the music more than a (+++) rating. Because Tchaikovsky’s three ballets are now so well known, it is impossible not to hear the lush melodies, the gorgeous strings, the warm winds and brass, while listening to these four-hand transcriptions – which, as a result, sound like pale imitations of the real thing. This is not altogether fair – reductions like these were commonly made to bring music into the home in pre-electronic days, and Tchaikovsky himself especially wanted the Swan Lake transcription made in order to prevent the ballet from falling into obscurity after its disastrous debut. Still, listening to this CD will likely tempt people familiar with the ballets to get out an orchestral recording of them or their suites instead. Those looking for something offbeat in their Tchaikovsky won’t go wrong with this CD, though. The Swan Lake transcription is by pianist Edouard Langer, a colleague of Tchaikovsky, and that of The Nutcracker is by Stepan Esipoff. The genesis of the Sleeping Beauty transcription is the most interesting: Tchaikovsky had it done by Rachmaninoff, who was 18 at the time, at the recommendation of pianist Alexander Ziloti, who also had a hand in the work; and then Tchaikovsky himself made final revisions. Whatever their purview, the three suites all lie well on the piano and all faithfully reproduce many of the loveliest pieces from the ballets. But that does not stop them from sounding like rather pallid reductions of brightly colored originals.

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