Shrink an Orchestra to a Single Piano, Keeping the Magic

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lennygoran
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Shrink an Orchestra to a Single Piano, Keeping the Magic

Post by lennygoran » Fri Jul 05, 2019 6:35 am

Shrink an Orchestra to a Single Piano, Keeping the Magic

Playing transcriptions of symphonies or ballets used to seem gimmicky. Younger pianists see it differently.There are audio clips too. Regards, Len

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By Anthony Tommasini

July 4, 2019

In 1988, when I interviewed the pianist Vladimir Horowitz at his elegant Manhattan townhouse, I asked him if he had any regrets. His answer surprised me. He said he deeply regretted never having played Liszt’s transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies in public.

“These are the greatest works for the piano, tremendous works,” he said.

Transcriptions of Beethoven symphonies, long thought of as a little trashy, as the “greatest works” for the piano? Greater than, say, Beethoven’s piano sonatas?

Yes, Horowitz said, in the sense that these Liszt scores are arguments for what the piano is capable of — for what the piano, in essence, is meant for.

“For me, the piano is the orchestra,” he said. “I don’t like the sound of a piano as a piano. I like to imitate the orchestra — the oboe, the clarinet, the violin and, of course, the singing voice. Every note of those symphonies is in these Liszt works.”


He added that he played the transcriptions all the time for himself, but thought that audiences would not understand the music.

“We are such snobs,” he said ruefully.

Perhaps we are no longer so snobby. A new generation of pianists seems to have caught up with Horowitz’s perspective. Though they present daunting technical challenges, Liszt’s transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies — as well as his versions of other symphonic works, opera excerpts and songs — are not just virtuosic gimmicks. Rather, they are a great composer’s attempt to use his beloved piano as a means to recreate, penetrate and get at the essence of the original music — without the distractions of the orchestra or voice.

Recently there have been many notable examples of adventurous younger pianists not only championing transcriptions by Liszt and other composers, but also writing their own. Earlier this year, Behzod Abduraimov began a recital at the 92nd Street Y with Liszt’s transcription of Wagner’s “Liebestod” from “Tristan und Isolde,” and ended with Prokofiev’s transcriptions of 10 pieces from his own “Romeo and Juliet” ballet score.

A month later Beatrice Rana, for her New York recital debut at Zankel Hall, played dazzling transcriptions of three pieces from Stravinsky’s “Firebird.”


On his remarkable recent album, “Life,” the superb Igor Levit includes two Liszt transcriptions of Wagner (the “Liebestod” and the Solemn March to the Holy Grail from “Parsifal”) as well as Brahms’s transcription, for the left hand, of Bach’s Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 for Solo Violin.

On another recent album, Jeremy Denk took listeners on a seven-century survey of music, including his transcriptions of some medieval and Renaissance vocal pieces by Machaut, Ockeghem, Josquin and other early composers.

Horowitz, who died in 1989 at 86, believed that the piano’s adaptability is at once its limitation and its glory. This view was echoed by Alfred Brendel in his 2013 book “A Pianist’s A-Z”: The piano “serves a purpose,” he wrote; it’s an “instrument of transformation.” It permits the pianist to suggest the singing voice and the timbres of other instruments.

This “propensity for metamorphosis,” he writes, is “our supreme privilege.” A single pianist can take on the sole responsibility for a performance, becoming “his own conductor and singer.”

Fear of backlash from audiences and critics may have prevented Horowitz from performing Liszt’s transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies. But Glenn Gould, who looked for opportunities to challenge assumptions, had no such reluctance. He recorded two of them: the Fifth and the Sixth Symphonies. The first movement of the Fifth offers exhilarating proof that Gould took these scores seriously.

To pick one classic recording of this orchestral staple for comparison, Karajan’s take on the first movement with the Berlin Philharmonic is stirring, weighty and rich. Gould could be a quirky interpreter. But his account of the Liszt transcription of that movement is straightforward and revelatory. Minus the myriad orchestra colorings, Gould’s spirited playing makes you listen anew to the music. Textures, inner voices and the grand structure of the piece emerge excitingly. Yet you also relish the performance as a sheer act of pianistic virtuosity.

It’s just as revealing to compare a few outstanding recent recordings of piano transcriptions with the original versions. Stewart Goodyear, taking up the legacy of Liszt, wrote an uncannily detailed and brilliant solo piano transcription of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” — not just the suite, but the entire two-act ballet score, which he recorded in 2015 on the Steinway & Sons label. This is a piece he has loved since childhood, he explains in the liner notes, and his affection comes through in every moment.

One might think that Tchaikovsky’s imaginative orchestration is integral to the pleasures of this music. During the Overture, for example, on Rostropovich’s stylish recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, the conductor lavishes attention on the various instrumental colors.

But Mr. Goodyear’s piano version of the same passage offers remarkable clarity — even at the lithe, sparkling tempo he takes. You hear every detail. In the manner of Horowitz, he tries to evoke on the piano the sounds of woodwinds, brass and light, rippling strings — and he succeeds. When I first heard this recording, I was impressed with the virtuosity and dedication. More important, though, I was reminded what ingenious music this is.

Mr. Denk has long been fascinated by the connections he hears between seemingly distant musical eras, a theme he explores extensively on his recent Nonesuch album. A standout example is Dufay’s 15th-century French chanson “Franc cuer gentil.” On a beautiful recorded version of the original by the ensemble Grand Désir, a radiant, light-voiced soprano sings the tune graciously, accompanied by supple lutes and other instruments.

But in his playing of the piano transcription, Mr. Denk highlights what you might not notice listening to the original: the intricacy of the counterpoint as lines mingle and cross; the jumpy vitality of the syncopated rhythms. The music sounds a little less dated, a little closer to our own time.

Sibelius’s wistful “Valse Triste,” with its restrained, sighing melody and warm, dusky strings, has become a popular encore piece. On his recording with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon), the conductor Neemi Järvi sensitively balances elegance and sadness.

But Alexandre Tharaud’s playing of a transcription, for a recording called “Autograph” (Erato), reminds you that this waltz may be sad, but it’s still a dance. The lilt and transparency of his playing lighten the mood — yet, somehow, the music seems even sadder than usual, perhaps because of the simplicity and directness of the solo piano arrangement.

Ms. Rana, who in the last few years has emerged as one of the outstanding pianists of her generation, had a lot on the line for her debut recital at Zankel this year. So it was a daring move to end with Guido Agosti’s 1928 transcription of the “Danse Infernale,” “Berceuse” and “Finale” from Stravinsky’s “The Firebird,” a ballet score best known today as a surefire symphonic work in the concert hall.

As a child I loved Stravinsky’s own recording of the piece, which even then impressed me as the ultimate in orchestral brilliance. Surely a piano transcription would risk sounding slick.

Not so. The slashing frenzy and harmonic grit of the “Dance Infernale,” the forlorn beauty of the “Berceuse,” and the incremental buildup in the jubilant, fanfare-like “Finale” all came through with stunning freshness in Mr. Rana’s solo performance.

Here she was being not just the conductor of Stravinsky’s breakthrough work, but also every instrument in the orchestra. Horowitz would have approved. And Liszt would have been proud.




https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/04/arts ... tions.html

Ricordanza
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Re: Shrink an Orchestra to a Single Piano, Keeping the Magic

Post by Ricordanza » Fri Jul 05, 2019 6:54 am

Perhaps we are no longer so snobby. A new generation of pianists seems to have caught up with Horowitz’s perspective.
This is a welcome development. I'm a long-time fan of piano transcriptions. A well-written, well-performed transcription adds a texture to the music that enhances the experience for the listener.

John F
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Re: Shrink an Orchestra to a Single Piano, Keeping the Magic

Post by John F » Fri Jul 05, 2019 7:24 am

This article is about two different kinds of pieces, though Tommasini doesn't distinguish between them clearly. One is a straight piano version of the original for one or two pianos, meant not so much for concert performance as for playing in the home, at a time when orchestral concerts were few and one might not hear a Beethoven or Brahms symphony in a lifetime. Not much magic in those. The other kind is a "paraphrase" for concert performance by virtuosos, notably Liszt, such as the "Reminiscences of Don Juan," that is Don Giovanni, which strings together several of the most popular numbers from the opera and is a challenge for even the most virtuosic pianists.

After a long period of neglect, some of Liszt's concert paraphrases were taken up by top-flight pianists; I remember a surprised review when Barenboim played Liszt's Rigoletto Paraphrase as an encore. There were also some recordings of Liszt's transcriptions of Beethoven symphonies, but the only one by a notable pianist was Glenn Gould's of the 5th and 6th. Nowadays, however, pianists more frequently play piano reductions, such as the 2-piano version of "Rite of Spring." These aren't going to push the orchestral versions out of the repertoire, but I guess there's no harm in playing them too.
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maestrob
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Re: Shrink an Orchestra to a Single Piano, Keeping the Magic

Post by maestrob » Fri Jul 05, 2019 11:39 am

I first became aware of Liszt's transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies while studying orchestral works at Juilliard. They are fabulous works, especially the four-hand transcription of IX, and I would welcome a recording by a major pianist. Cyprien Katsaris has recorded them, and they are quite excellent, while Leslie Howard has also recorded them as part of his complete traversal of all of Liszt's music:

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Belle
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Re: Shrink an Orchestra to a Single Piano, Keeping the Magic

Post by Belle » Fri Jul 05, 2019 4:19 pm

I have this absolutely excellent CD of the Liszt transcriptions of all Beethoven symphonies, played by Katsaris. What an achievement from this musician.

barney
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Re: Shrink an Orchestra to a Single Piano, Keeping the Magic

Post by barney » Fri Jul 05, 2019 6:39 pm

I love the transcriptions too, especially the Schubert songs and the opera paraphrases. I have many accounts, but the main one is the huge box set of the complete Liszt by Leslie Howard (about 100 CDs). What's amusing about that is no sooner was it released than supplementary volumes began to appear - it wasn't quite complete. New discoveries etc.
Howard is a very fine pianist but not a great one a la Horowitz or Gould or Brendel.

maestrob
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Re: Shrink an Orchestra to a Single Piano, Keeping the Magic

Post by maestrob » Sat Jul 06, 2019 11:41 am

There exists also a four-hand transcription (Liszt also) of Beethoven IX that deserves notice from, say, the dream team of Martha Argerich and Nelson Freire.

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Holden Fourth
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Re: Shrink an Orchestra to a Single Piano, Keeping the Magic

Post by Holden Fourth » Sat Jul 06, 2019 9:13 pm

As a devout follower of LvB I've got nearly all of his works by various performers and all but a few (such as the Missa) are loved. I was introduced to the symphonies by Cluytens and played them all regularly with the exception of the 8th. Despite trying different interpretations (Krips, Karajan, Furtwangler, Monteux and others) this work was just a MOR work for me.

Then I got given a wonderful recording of Cyprien Katsaris playing the Liszt transcription of the 4th and I was transfixed by the sound that opened up when played on a piano. By great fortune the accompanying symphony was the 8th and my views about it were changed forever. With the piano version I could hear all the intricate sub melodies that are in this work and what Beethoven was trying to achieve. It also became obvious that Beethoven was trying out some radical ideas - structural, rhythmical and harmonic.

With this new found knowledge I went back to the orchestral repertoire to see if I could find a recording that had the sort of transperancy that Liszt had created. From the traditional sources I found one by a conductor that actually surprised me - Toscanini. It's the articulation he gets from the orchestra that sets it apart and allows us to hear what's going on underneath. The other obvious source (one I'd shunned for a long time) was HIP. I thought that this would be easy but this work also requires some heft to it that, frequently, HIP performances don't seem to have. I'm still undecided on this and the best so far is Immerseel and Anima Eterna but I'm not totally convinced.

However, when I really want to listen to the 8th I am very happy to return to the Liszt Transcription.

John F
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Re: Shrink an Orchestra to a Single Piano, Keeping the Magic

Post by John F » Sun Jul 07, 2019 2:53 am

As I read your post about your difficulty with Beethoven's 8th, I immediately thought "Toscanini!", but since you've discovered it for yourself, I don't need to tell you about it.

I then listened to the other recording you mentioned, Liszt's transcription as played by Cyprien Katsaris. What a travesty! It's an honest reduction of what Beethoven wrote, honestly played, but the result does indeed reduce the effect and, I'd say, the nature of this brilliant music. I simply do not understand the enthusiasm I see in this thread for the piano versions generally and for Katsaris's adequate and dutiful playing. There really is no accounting for tastes. :roll:
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Rach3
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Re: Shrink an Orchestra to a Single Piano, Keeping the Magic

Post by Rach3 » Sun Jul 07, 2019 8:36 am

From a cd I have, the late Joseph Villa, LvB/Liszt 5th Sym., live in 1989,I believe at a "Bargemusic" recital NYC:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yVsaTpDUgkc

Rach3
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Re: Shrink an Orchestra to a Single Piano, Keeping the Magic

Post by Rach3 » Sun Jul 07, 2019 8:40 am

I have Naxos cd's of LvB/Liszt Syms. Nos. 7-9 with Konstantin Scherbakov, all 9 here if you wish to compare, sample:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ihWUB-_ ... VR0TEi-7uE

Belle
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Re: Shrink an Orchestra to a Single Piano, Keeping the Magic

Post by Belle » Sun Jul 07, 2019 6:57 pm

I just listened to the transcription of Symphony #1 from this link. Wonderful. I think I prefer it to the orchestrated version, to be honest. It's one of Beethoven's works I seldom hear or gravitate towards.

Rach3
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Re: Shrink an Orchestra to a Single Piano, Keeping the Magic

Post by Rach3 » Mon Jul 08, 2019 8:32 am

Belle wrote:
Sun Jul 07, 2019 6:57 pm
I just listened to the transcription of Symphony #1 from this link. Wonderful. I think I prefer it to the orchestrated version, to be honest. It's one of Beethoven's works I seldom hear or gravitate towards.
Do hear Villa's live LvB / Liszt Sym. # 5 YT as well.One of a kind.

Belle
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Re: Shrink an Orchestra to a Single Piano, Keeping the Magic

Post by Belle » Mon Jul 08, 2019 5:19 pm

Rach3 wrote:
Mon Jul 08, 2019 8:32 am
Belle wrote:
Sun Jul 07, 2019 6:57 pm
I just listened to the transcription of Symphony #1 from this link. Wonderful. I think I prefer it to the orchestrated version, to be honest. It's one of Beethoven's works I seldom hear or gravitate towards.
Do hear Villa's live LvB / Liszt Sym. # 5 YT as well.One of a kind.
Will do; I'm off to Perth in a few hours, for a couple of weeks. Will check it out when I return.

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Re: Shrink an Orchestra to a Single Piano, Keeping the Magic

Post by John F » Thu Jul 11, 2019 4:02 am

John F wrote:
Sun Jul 07, 2019 2:53 am
As I read your post about your difficulty with Beethoven's 8th, I immediately thought "Toscanini!", but since you've discovered it for yourself, I don't need to tell you about it.
But I will tell you about another recording that's even more exciting than Toscanini's. It was made in the summer of 1963 by the 86-year-old Pablo Casals conducting the Marlboro Festival Orchestra.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d8nys6lhCdM

Casals wasn't the world's greatest conductor, far from it, but on occasion with a committed and responsive orchestra he could really deliver, and this live recording was one such occasion.

Another is Mozart's sinfonia concertante for violin and viola, recorded during the Casals Festival at Perpignan in 1951, with Isaac Stern and William Primrose as soloists and Alexander Schneider as concertmaster.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N_zI1BpzUdU

The slow movement is marked Andante and the HIP crowd would perform it at a much faster tempo, but for me, Casals and his soloists express the emotional character of the music more deeply than in any of the Mozart Lite recordings I've heard.

The Casals festivals of the 1950s produced some extraordinary music-making, and fortunately American Columbia was there to record a lot of it, including much chamber music. Such as this sublime recording of Schubert's string quintet in C, made in Prades in 1952 with Isaac Stern, Alexander Schneider, Milton Katims, Casals, and Paul Tortelier.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S3tmFhrOgNk

There you are - three great works in three great recordings for the price of one. :)
John Francis

maestrob
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Re: Shrink an Orchestra to a Single Piano, Keeping the Magic

Post by maestrob » Thu Jul 11, 2019 11:38 am

More exciting than Toscanini?! High praise indeed! I will listen to that one with great interest.

Wasn't some of Casals's Bach issued on 78RPM discs by Columbia? I vaguely remember a Brandenburg 5.....

John F
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Re: Shrink an Orchestra to a Single Piano, Keeping the Magic

Post by John F » Thu Jul 11, 2019 12:03 pm

Casals recorded the Brandenburg Concertos at the Prades Festival in 1950. Eugene Istomin played the keyboard part in no. 5 on the piano, with John Wummer, flute, and Joseph Szigeti, violin. In no. 2 the trumpet part was played on the soprano saxophone by Marcel Mule, with John Wummer, flute; Marcel Tabuteau, oboe; and Alexander Schneider, violin. Casals recorded the Brandenburgs again at Marlboro in 1964. I didn't think much of those that I heard and don't have them.

As for 78s, Casals recorded a fair amount of Bach for EMI, including the six solo cello suites, but nothing for Columbia until 1950 at the Casals Festivals in Prades and Perpignan, and these were issued only on LP.
John Francis

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Re: Shrink an Orchestra to a Single Piano, Keeping the Magic

Post by maestrob » Thu Jul 11, 2019 12:57 pm

John F wrote:
Thu Jul 11, 2019 12:03 pm
Casals recorded the Brandenburg Concertos at the Prades Festival in 1950. Eugene Istomin played the keyboard part in no. 5 on the piano, with John Wummer, flute, and Joseph Szigeti, violin. In no. 2 the trumpet part was played on the soprano saxophone by Marcel Mule, with John Wummer, flute; Marcel Tabuteau, oboe; and Alexander Schneider, violin. Casals recorded the Brandenburgs again at Marlboro in 1964. I didn't think much of those that I heard and don't have them.

As for 78s, Casals recorded a fair amount of Bach for EMI, including the six solo cello suites, but nothing for Columbia until 1950 at the Casals Festivals in Prades and Perpignan, and these were issued only on LP.
Ah, so!

Just finished listening to the Beethoven VIII. Great electricity level, fine discipline. The final movement was very well-managed, with excellent articulation, esp. in the string sections, while the first movement was electrifying! .....And, it's in stereo! A fine example of Casals's conducting at its best.

Thank-you, John! :)

John F
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Re: Shrink an Orchestra to a Single Piano, Keeping the Magic

Post by John F » Thu Jul 11, 2019 2:16 pm

By the way, I've found the personnel of the orchestra for this performance. What an amazing line-up.

Flute – Bernard Goldberg, Nancy Dalley
Oboe – John Mack, Seizo Suzuki
Clarinet – Harold Wright, Thomas Peterson
Bassoon – Gerald Corey, Nicholas Kilburn
French Horn – A. Robert Johnson, Myron Bloom
Trumpet – Glen Bowling, Louis Opalesky
Timpani – John Wyre
Violin – Arnold Steinhardt, Charles Avsharian, Christopher Kimber, Ernestine Briesmeister, Felix Galimir, Helen Shklar Tung, Herbert Sorkin, Irene Serkin, Jaime Laredo, John Dalley, Ling Tung, Max Rabinovitsj, Michael Tree, Nancy Cirillo, Shmuel Ashkenasi, Toni Rapport, Zvi Zeitlin
Viola – Caroline Levine, Endel Kalam, Karen Tuttle, Lotte Bamberger, Myra Kestenbaum, Raymond Montoni, Samuel Rhodes, Sidney Curtiss
Cello – Bonnie Hampton, David Soyer, Fortunato Arico, Hermann Busch, Jules Eskin, Lynn Harrell, Madeline Foley, Robert Sylvester
Contrabass – Julius Levine, Orin O'Brien
Just look at the violins and cellos! And some of the less well known players were principals in their home orchestras; Max Rabinovitsj was concertmaster of the St. Louis Symphony.
John Francis

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