Pas de deux for two pianos Mikhail Pletnev's transcription of Prokofiev's Cinderella Suite
It is now almost 60 years since Prokofiev's three-act ballet Cinderella was first performed at Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre. Rostislav Zakharov's choreography was closely based on Nikolay Volkov's skilful scenario, which for its part, included all the episodes of the fairytale and naturally accommodated all the dancers' needs. Given a score so uncommonly full of life and, in its lyrical passages, so irresistibly charming, the success of the production was never in doubt. And although Cinderella has always been overshadowed by Prokofiev's other great ballet, Romeo and Juliet, and even more so by Tchaikovsky's three masterpieces for the dance, that situation may yet change when the connoisseurs hear Mikhail Pletnev's masterly and keenly self-assured transcription of the ballet suite, especially in a genuinely historic recording by two of the greatest pianists of our day.
If Prokofiev's ballet explores potential of dance, the present arrangement transfers that potential to the imaginary stage of two pianos. In doing so it affords the most intimate insights into the mechanics and psychology of a fairytale score that is essentially an appeal - understated and rebellious by turns - on behalf of the oppressed and underprivileged. And ultimately it confirms our hope that justice may finally triumph, even if that is no longer so easy to believe in our everyday world.
The present transcription for two pianos is not the first time that Mikhail Pletnev has tried his hand as an arranger and thought through the work in question to its pianistic conclusion. Around the time that he triumphed at the 1978 Moscow Tchaikovsky Competition, the young Pletnev was already inspiring his audiences with his love of transcriptions. At that date he was attracted above all by episodes from two other ballets, Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker and Rodion Shchedrin's Anna Karenina. If he has now turned Cinderella into a pianistic pas de deux, he has a reference point in the composer's own piano arrangements of the score. Prokofiev's adaptations take the form of three relatively large-scale suites for piano solo, opp. 95, 97 and 102, all of which make the work's most memorable numbers available for concert use. These miniatures are notable for their impulsive rhythms, sensuous melodies and - in the case of the famous gavotte - their sensitive handling of historical forms. This gavotte, which Sviatoslav Richter performed during his earliest appearances in the West, is also a part of Pletnev's version of the score. In terms of piano technique, his transcriptions are always extremely lean-textured and transparent, and the present gavotte is no exception, with the listener inevitably impressed by the arranger's unerring view of the pieces's essentials and its imagery. Even the notes on the printed page suggest Prokofiev's original piano scores. In the accompanying figures we recognize those elements that are necessary to create a sense of atmosphere. The feeling of intoxication and frenzy is achieved by compressing and condensing the content, rather than by means of grandiose figurations and dense chordal textures.
Pletnev's decision to entrust the art of dance to the care of two pairs of hands is an experiment in which every passage reflects the seriousness of purpose that is entirely typical of a thoughtful artist aware of his potential for virtuoso outbursts and able to curb that potential. Of course, Pletnev could have used - and misused - Prokofiev's music to inflict endlessly ascending and descending broken triads on his own fingers and the incomparably dextrous ones of his partner Martha Argerich, for whom he wrote the work and to whom it is dedicated. We lovers of piano playing would not have taken it amiss had he done so. But Pletnev proves himself once again the interdenominational high priest of (self-)control or, if one prefers it, of proud submission. In preparing his version of the ballet suite, he has retraced the sinewy lines of the plot and explored the lyricism and drama. And he has divided the corresponding themes, impulses and colours between two keyboards as though there could have been no other way of delegating the choreography of so wondrous a work to four hands. If we close our eyes and, placing our confidence in Pletnev and the suggestive sonorities of the two pianos, we shall not find it difficult to feel Cinderella's bashfulness, her stepmother's wickedness, the bustle of life at court, the excitements of her dancing lesson and the delightful apotheosis as the lovers are united, all of it evoked with the tangible physicality of the ballet as danced on stage.
The recording session, which lasted until the early hours of the morning, was characterized by an exceptionally creative atmosphere and a productive artistic tension between the two pianists. This is reflected even in Pletnev's realization of the sound of tolling bells that marks the climax of the work. Here he literally leapt up from his piano stool and struck the palm of his hand against the strings of the instrument while continuing to play the keyboard with his other hand, all this accompanied by Argerich's dark and mysterious chords.
Like Prokofiev, the French composer Maurice Ravel also prepared transcriptions of a number of his works. But whereas his Russian colleague arranged orchestral works for the piano, Ravel orchestrated his piano pieces. In the case of Ma Mère l'Oye - a magical children's story recalling the fairytale subjects of Schumann and Debussy - Ravel must have been thinking of an orchestral version for use as a ballet even while he was writing the piece for piano. The subtitle of the piano suite, "Cinq pièces enfantines", should not mislead us: the "Mother Goose" of the title figures as the narrator and inventor of the brief stories whose poetry conjures up the imperishable yet irretrievable world of childhood.
Ma mère l'oye, M.60 - 3. Laideronnette, Impératrice des Pagodes