Tablet - Portrait

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Igor Stravinsky

It was mostly at the urging of then 34 year old pianist Arthur Rubinstein (the "urging" was really an offer of 5000 francs -- serious money for a composer reeling from the effects of the First World War) that, in 1921, Igor Stravinsky set about converting three portions of his already famous ballet Petrushka into a three-movement vehicle for solo piano. And yet, despite the lavish attention to orchestral detail that fills every measure of the ballet, it is not at all difficult to imagine the work in pianistic terms: Stravinsky's first sketches of Petrushka (from the summer of 1910) took the form of a concerto for piano and orchestra, and it was only at the urging of impresario Diaghilev that he rerouted his energies into a theatrical vein and produced the work that now is so well-known. Strangely enough, Rubinstein never recorded these Trois Mouvements de Petrouchka, though accounts of his many live performances of the piece testify to his close sympathy with the music.

The three numbers that Stravinsky selected to arrange are, in the order they appear, the "Russian Dance" from the end of the first tableau, "Petrushka's Cell" from the second tableau, and, incorporating almost all of the fourth tableau (including the ending published in the 1947 revision of the ballet), "The Shrove-tide Fair." Everywhere the pianism is brilliantly choreographed (the work is certainly tremendously difficult to bring off, but always packs a wallop when done well), and the transcription to the keyboard is carried out with a finesse not usually encountered in a composer's translation of his own music (usually a certain amount of distance, psychologically speaking, is helpful in successfully carrying out such a translation; hence Franz Liszt's many spectacular piano transcriptions of music utterly foreign to his own compositional style): here is no mere "piano reduction," but rather a full-blown, independent concert work in which the electric, vaguely symmetrical sixteenth-note figurations and sharp orchestral articulations of the "Russian Dance" are reforged into a demanding test of finger dexterity (the "Russian Dance," in its original orchestral form, is actually reinforced by a dramatic, nonstop use of the piano) and, later on, the famous oscillating contrary thirds of strings and woodwinds that open "The Shrove-tide Fair" (clearly originally conceived of at the piano) are translated into a shimmering and wholly idiomatic keyboard figuration that is almost -- but not quite -- the equal of its orchestral counterpart.