Until recently, transcriptions for solo piano of ballet scores tended to be looked down upon by the cognoscenti, certainly by most pianists who describe themselves as ‘serious’. True, Stravinsky’s reworking for piano of three excerpts from his Petrushka score was an exception to this musical snobbery. But, insofar as the great ballet scores of, say, Tchaikowsky are concerned, why, it would have been unthinkable to play piano versions of them in the concert hall -or so ran the conventional wisdom.
But with the advent of Michael Pletnev, a pianist in the grandest of grand virtuoso traditions – and his stunning reworkings of these much loved orchestral scores for keyboard – piano transcriptions of ballet music have come up in the world.
No longer the sole preserve of numberless suburban dance studios, where it’s often thumped out on out-of-tune pianos played by elderly ladies wearing hats, this treasury of melody is now welcomed at that holiest of holy institutions, the solo piano recital. Deprecating sniffs have given way to cries of admiration.
Pletnev showed the way and now others, also endowed with blistering technical finesse, have come to the party.
One of the most impressive of these converts to the newly respectable world of ballet score transcriptions is young Russian pianist Alexei Volodin. He seems positively to relish coming to grips with the music; his involvement with the score is powerfully emotional and it sweeps all before it.
The recordings abound in memorable moments: astonishing, quicksilver fluency in the Singing Canary (from Sleeping Beauty), splendidly buoyant, athletic treatment of the finale. And how cleverly Volodin simulates the celeste-like pingings of The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
And in the Russian Dance from Petrushka, Volodin pulls out all the stops in an episode which famed Greek pianist Gina Bachauer once conceded was “terribly hard to play”.
The underlying hysteria of Petrushka’s Room comes through in Volodin’s marvellously detailed treatment of the notes. And the swarming detail of Shrovetide Fair comes across in a tour de force, its floodtide of notes marshalled in a way that powerfully suggests a bustling crowd.
Copyright 2005 Neville Cohn