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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Les saisons (The Seasons), Op. 37bis (1876) [47:56]
Romeo and Juliet: Fantasy overture (arr. E. Naoumoff) (1870, rev. 1880) [20:14]
Symphony No. 6 Pathétique: Adagio lamentoso (arr. E. Naoumoff) (1893) [10:59]
Emile Naoumoff (piano)
rec. November 2011, St. Marcel Evangelist Church, Paris. DDD
SAPHIR PRODUCTIONS LVC1174 [78:45] 

Emile Naoumoff was born in Bulgaria. He was a child prodigy in piano and composition, and became the last pupil of Nadia Boulanger. She referred to him as "the gift of my old age". After Boulanger’s death Naoumoff took over her summer classes in Fontainebleau. He has an extensive discography, in which French composers take a prominent part. He is also an active composer, with the piano involved in almost all his compositions. Two of the works on this album are Naoumoff’s transcriptions of Tchaikovsky’s orchestral works. 

The disc begins with a warm and lyrical performance of Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons: a cycle of 12 salon pieces, each depicting a month in the Russian yearly cycle of the countryside life. The music for each piece describes either events that happen in this month, or the state of nature associated with it. Naoumoff’s January is gentle and cozy. Carnival is energetic, yet without Stravinskian savagery. The evening zephyr is cool and transparent inMarch, which is full of Tchaikovsky’s soft blues - in both senses of the word. April throbs with simmering energy, all directed up, towards the Sun. May starts dreamily, but the middle episode is very intense. Naoumoff’s Barcarole is somewhat mannered, with frequent quickening and slowing for expressive purposes and accents; on the other hand, it has real Tchaikovskian essence. July is folksy and happy, and the part depicting the hard labour of the reapers has no dark colours. August is not hurried and hectic as it is presented sometimes, but confident and concentrated; this helps to visualize the tough effort of the harvesters. The Hunt is solid and robust, maybe a bit too sharp. The Autumn Song is one big rubato, but in such a hushed and caring reading sounds quite natural. There is hesitancy in this autumnal sadness. In Troika I can’t get rid of the feeling of a slow-motion movie. This music can express the delight of the arrow-like flying forward, but here it is cautious and graceful, like the mermaids’ round dances in Smetana’s Moldau. December is one of Tchaikovsky’s beautiful waltzes, light and lithe; nothing happens in this decorative piece, and the performance is soft and pliant, a stylish close to this beautiful cycle. The impression left is neither adventurous nor forced; its beauty is gentle, even restrained.
 
Naoumoff’s arrangement of the Romeo and Juliet overture conveys well the work’s Hollywood mix of love and hostility, solemnity and lyricism. Here similarities with the Liszt Sonata emerge. The music itself is so powerful that its rhythms go directly to your heart rate and the harmonies to your blood pressure. Though the transcription reflects the power of the orchestral version, it does not fully replicate its lavish splendour, and cannot escape a feeling of wooden rigidity. Such medieval austerity sounds fitting in some places; in others I feel that a richer arrangement would have had a more profound effect. However, in a good theatre the spectator forgets that the decorations are cardboard, and here the performance is certainly arresting, with excellent drive. The overall approach is percussive and full of expression; by the time of the last appearance of the love theme this turns into hammering and banging until the dreamy coda comes as welcome balm. The lasting impression is profound but a bit uncomfortable, and the piano rings hard in loud places.
 
Naoumoff used the same style to transcribe the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique. Unlike Romeo and Juliet its original orchestral fabric was sparse, and so the transcription sounds more natural. The piano is an unmistakable Steinway: its sound is grand and often organ-like, but with some hollowness. It growls and snarls in the movement’s desolate depths. The main melody, when done by the piano and not by the separated violins, loses some of its plaintive and inclusive qualities. The hard, heavy steps of Fate dominate. The effect is dramatic, raw and rough, but less personal than in the orchestral version. Again the fff passages occasionally slip into shouting.
 
Overall, this is an engaging disc. It combines a very good presentation of Tchaikovsky’s beautiful salon cycle with two inventive transcriptions. I have some reservations about the sound of the two transcriptions, which I find a little stiff: this is caused both by the arrangement style and by the choice of the instrument. I have no such reservations about the sound on The Seasons, which enjoys a balanced and loving reading.  

Oleg Ledeniov