Russian Works for Piano 4 Hands
This is an altogether impressive, accomplished and rewarding release, a delight to listen to from both the sound and performance points of view. The venue is Cardiff’s University Concert Hall. Paul Baxter is the engineer. He is also the co-producer with Peter Hill. Full marks.
The programme order is Rachmaninov-Tchaikovsky-Stravinsky but I shall begin, as Hill does in his excellent booklet essay, with the selection of 23 of the 50 Russian Folk Songs (1869), all lasting less than a minute, the shortest a mere 16 seconds. You’ll recognise ‘Under the green apple tree’ from the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, ‘Vanya was sitting’ (from the Andante cantabile of his First String Quartet) and the more virtuoso setting of ‘Song of the Volga Boatmen’.
The latter would seem to be the (unnamed in the score) ‘Russian Theme’, No 3 of Rachmaninov’s early Six Morceaux, Op 11, though it is not the best of the six. These are No 2, the brilliant Scherzo, and No 6, ‘Slava’, which uses the same liturgical chant that Mussorgsky uses in Boris Godunov. Hill and Frith may well make you wonder why Op 11 is heard so infrequently compared with Rachmaninov’s other music for two pianists.
The cross-pollination continues with Petrushka, in which the folk song ‘Yesterday evening I was young at the feast’ (track 23) makes an appearance as ‘Dance of the Wet-Nurses’. In Stravinsky’s own arrangement of his revised 1947 version of the ballet, the bar of technical difficulty, rhythmic complexity and ensemble challenges is raised to a high level, rarely letting either player off the hook for its 32'22" duration. Hill and Frith have been playing as a duo since 1986. Such complete blending of tone, touch, dynamics and phrasing quite conceals any division of labour: a clear case of two right hands knowing exactly what the two left ones are doing.