Piano Synergy Duo. Husband-and-wife team Ruslan Sviridov and Irina Khovanskaya created the Piano Synergy Duo in 1996. Using their unique musical potential, the duo designs concert programs in which they perform together as well as individually. The results have been a constantly heavy demand and continuing success. For the past 14 years, the duo has toured extensively throughout Russia, Europe, and the Unites States. Now, for the first time, listeners have an opportunity to hear them on a CD.
Irina Khovanskaya was born to a musician’s family in Russia’s Moscow Region in 1972. She began piano lessons at age 4 and gave her first recital about two years later in Kiev. Ten years of formal musical training followed at the Moscow Central Special Music College, during which time she also concertized extensively as a recitalist and with orchestras. Several of these events took place at the Moscow Conservatory’s Small Hall, but she also played as far afield as the Russian Space Center (Moscow Region) and on USSR TV. Receiving a Bachelor’s Degree in 1990, Khovanskaya’s studies and performing career continued as she entered the Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory, where her teacher was Victor Merzhanov. Now her performances become international. Besides appearances with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra and in many Russian cities, she performed in Zurich, Munich, Brussels, and Warsaw. Contests in Russia, Germany, and Belgium were capped by Khovanskaya’s winning First Prize in the Texas Steinway Society Piano Competition in Dallas, Texas in 1999. With her Conservatory Diploma (1996) and post-graduate work behind her, Dr. Khovanskaya now resides in San Antonio, Texas. In addition to performance engagements, she teaches piano at the University of the Incarnate Word and adjudicates in piano competitions.
Ruslan Sviridov was born in 1973 in Tambov, Russia. He began to study music at age 7 and gave his first public performance at the age of 8. His years of study at the Tambov Music School and later at the Rachmaninov Music College in Tambov were marked by many competition triumphs and literally hundreds of concerts and recitals throughout Russia’s Central Region. First prizes came from the Tchaikovsky Regional Piano Contest (1989), the Bartok Regional Contest (1989), and the Kabalevsky Regional Competition for Young Pianists (1990), to name only a few. Sviridov went on to enter the Moscow State Conservatory, studying with Victor Merzhanov. Concerts and competitions continued, now at a higher level. He played with symphony orchestras in several Russian cities, including Moscow, Ulyanovsk, and Tambov, and at the Glinka Music Festival in Smolensk. During 1994-96, he took Grand Prize or First Prize (or both) or a Special Jury Prize at competitions in Italy at Tortona, Alassio, San Bartolomeo al Mare, and Caltanissetta, Sicily. His first U.S. triumph was a Special Jury Prize in Kingsville, Texas (1995). In addition to an international list of recitals, Sviridov’s career is distinguished by a substantial body of television tapes and live appearances, starting in Russia and extending through Italy, Switzerland, Portugal, and the United States (NBC). During his studies in Moscow, culminating in a Doctoral Degree (1998), he taught piano and music theory. Leaving Russia in 1998, Dr. Sviridov again picked up his teaching activity in San Antonio, Texas, also his base for concertizing and contest adjudication.
Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker Suite
As charming and entertaining as The Nutcracker ballet turned out, one would hardly imagine that Peter I. Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) did not care much for the score himself. The composer had been a little reluctant to compose this music on a subject that was prescribed for him and for which the choreographer had given him an over-detailed scenario. He completed the score in 1891, and some months before the premiere of the full ballet the following year he extracted a concert suite.
The scenario of The Nutcracker ballet was taken from a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann as adapted by Alexander Dumas, Sr. It has to do with Clara, a young girl who receives a grotesque looking nutcracker for Christmas, only to have it magically transformed into a prince who carries her off on fantastic adventures. The movements of the Suite do not follow the progress of the story exactly, but are ordered to form a good musical sequence.
The “March” has a toy quality, reminding us that the only military operations that Clara witnesses are imaginary ones between mice and gingerbread soldiers. The “Dance of the Sugar- Plum Fairy ” was composed originally for the celesta, a bell-like keyboard instrument that personifies this character perfectly. This was the first time a composer had written for the instrument.
In the second act of The Nutcracker, Clara and her Nutcracker are treated to an international divertissement of dances at the court of the Sugar-Plum Fairy. One part of this is the “Trepak,” a wild Russian dance and one of the nationalistic elements in the ballet. More exotic is the Chinese “Dance of the Reed Flutes,” originally featuring shrill flutes and piccolos and mumbling bassoons.
When we think of waltzes, we usually think of Johann Strauss. But Tchaikovsky was also one of the great waltz composers of his century. Waltzes from Eugene Onegin and the Serenade for Strings bear witness. The “Waltz of the Flowers” is the finale to The Nutcracker Suite and one of the most graceful movements ever penned by Tchaikovsky.
Stravinsky, Five Easy Pieces for Piano Duet
The years of World War I (1914-1918) were years of small pieces for Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). Self-sequestered in Switzerland for most of the duration, the composer found few opportunities for performances or publication. Stravinsky occupied himself chiefly with small- scale stage works, songs, and short instrumental pieces. At that time, his oldest children, Theodore and Mika, had become good enough pianists for him to write music for each of them to play with their father. So originated the series of Five Easy Pieces for piano duet. The child’s part was usually a melody played in octaves, while the father’s part filled out the texture and contained any complicated passage work. Stravinsky later orchestrated four of the duets to produce his Suite No. 1 for small orchestra.
Stravinsky’s musical sense of humor is, of course, famous. In these miniature character pieces, we can hear the same wry satire that charms us in much of his other music from this period. The Five Easy Pieces touch on various “national” musical characteristics. Following a relatively serious “Andante” comes an “Española” composed after a trip to Spain in 1916. The “Balalaika” celebrates the Russian folk instrument. “Napolitana” was another travel souvenir, this time to Naples in 1917. The concluding “Galop” is a spoof on the archetypical endings of French ballets of the 19th century. Its high spirits and satirical jabs sum up the flavor of the Five Easy Pieces.
Rachmaninov, Six Pieces for Piano Duet, Op. 11
Like his mentor Tchaikovsky, Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) did not enjoy teaching. He did so only when he needed money. Rachmaninov found himself in that financial position in 1893, the year Tchaikovsky died. Taking on more private lessons, he also taught music theory at a girls’ academy. Rachmaninov’s publisher, knowing his need and also knowing the market for his piano music, convinced him to write something for piano four-hands. The result was the Six Pieces for Piano Duet published in 1894, which turned out to be the longest work Rachmaninov ever created for piano duet.
The movements are “character” pieces in the best romantic salon tradition, and they contrast with one another effectively. The opening “Barcarolle” floats along on the undulating lilt of a gondola song, yet Rachmaninov infuses it with his own characteristic melancholy. Cascading melodies abound, and the dramatic middle section offers some pianistic flash. The romping “Scherzo” that follows has a mood as close to the spirit of Mendelssohn as Rachmaninov ever came, achieved more through rhythm than melody.
“Russian Theme” is an arrangement of the folk song The Barge Haulers. Rachmaninov infuses the song’s square phrases with rich harmony, pointed counter-melodies, and sometimes orchestrally flavored textures. The “Waltz” shows Rachmaninov in the sweeping tradition of the most popular of stylized ballroom dances. Grounded in the piano tradition of Chopin, the music nonetheless owes much to Tchaikovsky. Adding his own special brand of harmony and melody, Rachmaninov writes something of a parody waltz, infusing it with a sardonic wit that forecasts the spirit of Prokofiev. “Romance” is a title Rachmaninov placed on many of his art songs. The present “Romance,” too, is songlike with its lyrical melodies and dreamy mood. This piece also shows the somewhat depressive side of Rachmaninov’s musical personality.
Based on a traditional Russian hymn heard also in Boris Godunov’s Coronation Scene, the final movement “Slava” (Glory) is an outpouring of free variations on the familiar melody. Building momentum as a grand finale, the music at last explodes into a flurry of hymn fragments heard through the pealing of church bells.
© Dr. Michael Fink