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Igor Stravinsky – Reviews

The Firebird / Petrushka / The Rite of Spring

Peter Dickinson, Gramophone:

    ‘The unusual thing about this piano duet recording of Stravinsky is that Philip Moore has arranged the last three dances from The Firebird to give us music from all three of these famous ballets. The precedent is, of course, the complete duet version of The Rite of Spring, the three numbers from Petrushka for solo piano as well as duet, and the tendency at that time for composers to make keyboard versions of orchestral works. Moore also points out that Stravinsky composed at the piano so a translation back to keyboard is not difficult.
    The process in The Firebird is entirely convincing. From its first chord, the “Infernal Dance of King Kashchei” is electric and stays that way, the transition to the Lullaby (also called Berceuse) is pregnant with atmosphere, and the finale is terrific. The duo’s ensemble is astonishingly good – and there are plenty of challenges in The Rite of Spring, which must be the duettists’ equivalent of climbing Everest. The sheer panache of these performers makes this a most satisfying release with a unique feature.’

Leandro Ferraccioli, International Piano:

    ‘Stravinsky’s ballet works and the piano are inextricably linked. He actually composed them at the instrument and, for rehearsal purposes, also made his own two- and four-hand arrangements. Indeed, in many ways these are valid keyboard pieces in their own right (most famously in the case of Petrushka) and this recital by piano duo Philip Moore and Simon Crawford-Phillips is a welcome addition to the catalogue.
    Alongside Stravinsky’s own arrangements of The Rite of Spring and Petrushka, here we have a four-hand “first”: Philip Moore’s own highly effective version of The Firebird and in my view worth the price of this disc alone. In Kaschei’s ‘Infernal Dance’ there is some glittering virtuosity and propulsive rhythmic impetus, but the duo is mindful of the Firebird’s opulent, exotic colour. The hypnotic bell-tolls of ‘Lullaby’ are particularly good in this respect, while the duo’s crisp, precise pedaling never blurs textures and the steady build of sound in the finale creates a thrillingly ecstatic, orchestral climax.
    In Petrushka, we really get a sense of the luckless puppet and the piece’s balletic character. Moreover, in the ‘Russian Dance’ and ‘Shrovetide Fair’ the extra pair of hands allows for a greater variety of inner voices, orchestral detailing and layering of sound.
    In The Rite of Spring, Moore and Crawford-Phillips avoid turning the work into an imitative slugfest, focusing instead on the score’s rich detailing and rhythmic complexity. ‘Spring Rounds’ and ‘Procession of the Sage’ are superbly atmospheric and earthy in character.
    With piano duet versions of Stravinsky’s ballet music thin on the ground, this recital is a compelling choice.’

Dominy Clements, Music-Web International:

    ‘This new recording has a trilogy of Diaghilev ballets by Igor Stravinsky in, with the exception of The Firebird, the composer’s own versions for piano duet. …
    With no Stravinsky four-hand transcription of The Firebird available, Philip Moore undertook the project of arranging the work for four hands, recorded here for the first time. As with all of these works, the music has a directness and logic which almost transcends the instrumentation used, but Moore’s arrangement is more than mere transcription. Certainly it creates a useful addition to the piano duet repertoire, but it also creates some marvellous pianistic moments. The rocking Lullaby takes on the character of Mussorgskian Russian bells at times, and the outer movements both create a musical tour-de-force which I suspect will find its way into core repertoire territory.
    Petrushka again presents no problems in this format, with plenty of ‘orchestral’ colour and dynamism. The quicksilver contrasts and programmatic nature of the motives make this harder to bring off in some ways than The Firebird, but while there are one or two slightly heavy moments with repetitive passages this duo manages the complex and richly notated score well enough. …
    I am seriously impressed by this duo, and this new recording mixes it well with other established names in this repertoire. … this is a recording and performance which will supplement the orchestral version in your collection … and add a refreshingly new and technically imposing view on these seminal 20th century masterpieces.’

Glyn Pursglove, Music-Web International:

    ‘Piano-duet versions of Petrushka and The Rite of Spring exist from Stravinsky’s own pen. No such version of The Firebird survives and Philip Moore has prepared a transcription for this recording. In a note contributed to the CD booklet, Moore describes the process as “essentially about translating orchestral drama into pianistic drama whilst preserving the logic and clarity of the part writing – my guiding principle, if there was one at all, was that as far as possible the musical texture should be split into its constituent parts and these then divided between the pianists, so that each player is following complete musical lines, thereby engendering a free, impulsive performance in the true spirit of chamber music”.
    Those final phrases very well describe the music-making on this disc. There is a very real sense in which piano-duet versions, if they are well made and if they are well performed, don’t so much preserve the logic and clarity of the part writing of orchestral works as actually enhance them, or at any rate make them easier to discern even if there are also inevitable losses in the movement from full orchestra to four hands at the piano. One of the pleasures of a disc such as this is that it sends one back to the orchestral works as a better listener, a listener with ears and mind more fully alert to those structures which can sometimes be partially lost behind the mass of orchestral detail. That is my experience, at least – especially where the works in question are these three great ballets by Stravinsky, so full of attractive orchestral colour and detail.
    But I don’t want to give the impression that this CD is of interest merely as a means to a different end, as it were. It deserves – and rewards – attention on its own terms. It is with Philip Moore’s transcription of The Firebird that we begin and one’s confidence in proceedings is immediately gained. Maybe there’s more passion than darkness in ‘The Infernal Dance of King Kashchei’ but the music certainly dances, with an energy I haven’t always encountered in performances of the orchestral original. The central ‘Lullaby’ rocks gently and persuasively, the writing for the piano and the playing alike delightful and rhythmically subtle, while the ‘Finale’ has great majesty without ever being over-inflated. The ‘Russian Dance’ which opens Petrushka is vivacious and engaging, the sound-picture of Petrushka’s room has some exquisite moments and some abrupt changes of mood. The ‘Shrovetide Fair’ which closes this trio of pieces has all the frenzy one might expect, passages of pursuit and violence played with exciting precision and evocative insight. The incisive rhythms of the original and its sheer momentum are captured with a fresh intimacy in this ‘small-scale’ version. The interplay between Moore and Crawford-Phillips is absolute, so that one readily forgets that there are two performers, so complete is the integration of their contributions.
    In their performance of the Rite there is plenty of drive and momentum, but never at the cost of accuracy. Moore and Crawford-Phillips capture so much of the spirit of the work, so much of its archetypal, mythical quality, so much of its sense of sacred renewal, that an innocent hearer would surely not suspect that it was a mere ‘version’ of a work more famous in another musical medium. They do full justice to the Rite’s sub-title, “Pictures of Pagan Russia”. In an earlier review, Dominy Clements spoke of how Moore and Crawford-Phillips “catch the Russianness in the work and avoid the shadow of Debussy” – and that puts it very well. Moore and Crawford-Phillips are never underpowered, never less than fully responsive to the emotional range of this ceaselessly astonishing piece.
    These young English pianists are a team to reckon with and they are well served by a vivid recorded sound. This CD offers listeners the chance both to enjoy a fresh perspective on three orchestral masterpieces and to hear an outstanding piano duet at work.’

Julian Maynard-Smith, Classical Web:

    ‘This CD is the first recording on which movements from all three of the Diaghilev ballets are available as piano duets. While ‘Petrushka’ and ‘The Rite of Spring’ had been transcribed for two pianos, ‘The Firebird’ hadn’t – a gap in the repertoire that Philip Moore himself decided to fill.
    In the CD booklet, he states that his guiding principle in undertaking this task, ” … was that as far as possible the musical texture should be split into its constituent parts and these then divided between the pianists, so that each player is following complete musical lines, thereby engendering a free, impulsive performance in the true spirit of chamber music. In this aim Moore has been successful – the three Firebird movements have no audible seams or splits, and brim with propulsive energy. If it weren’t for the sheer complexity of the textures, you could be forgiven for thinking you were hearing one pianist.
    The full palette of an orchestra may be reduced to the black and white of piano keys, yet Moore and Crawford-Phillips – with their cleanly articulated and vigorous playing, full of sensitive dynamics – provide colouration in abundance. ‘The Infernal Dance of King Kashchei’, for example, ranges from clipped aggression to airy joy, before a tumultuous climax that subsides into weariness and melancholia, segueing perfectly into a haunting and suitably nocturnal ‘Lullaby’.
    The three movements from ‘Petrushka’ are equally sparkling and energised. With the vigorous descending run at the end of ‘Shrovetide Fair’, one can imagine that the Old Wizard has forced the puppet Petrushka to spin into a final Dervish-like dance, before letting him collapse in an exhausted heap.
    It is with ‘The Rite of Spring’ movements (thirteen, as opposed to the three apiece for ‘Firebird’ and ‘Petrushka’) that the bulk of the CD lies. And it is here that the shift from orchestra to pianos is perhaps most dramatic. The biting dissonance and jagged time-signature shifts are starkly illuminated, reminding this listener of just how shocking this seminal work must have sounded to its first audience at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in 1913. It’s not all anguished Russianness; there are moments of quietness and contemplation, although even the pianissimo passages occasionally sound full of suppressed fury.
    Since first performing together in 1995, Moore and Crawford-Phillips have picked up prizes and praise alike and – judging by their performances on this disk – deservedly so.’