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Transcriptions and Collaborations: Why Not Mix It Up a Bit?

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Some days ago I posted a link on my Facebook page about the upcoming collaboration between a classical pianist and a jazz pianist which I had come across browsing the Internet. The link shows pianists — each an icon in their own right, but coming from entirely different corners of the piano world — playing together in an eminent European concert, the production of which had received a spectacular amount of publicity. There had been very minimal rehearsal time, and the concert was being previewed as a promotional video clip on CNN.

What seemed to me like a decidedly glitzy but still very intriguing venture bringing the worlds of jazz piano and classical music and their respective A-list performers, Herbie Hancock and the inexhaustible Lang Lang, together, served as grounds for some very emotional responses from other well-respected musicians and friends on my Facebook page. Surprised by the vehemence of the comments I received on my post, I felt obliged to give some more thought to the obviously very sensitive issue of crossovers between different types of music.

Called a fusion nightmare and criticized for the absence of sufficient rehearsal time resulting in a mere kissing of rings by some outraged, very poignant voices on my Facebook page, other opinions were of a more moderate nature. Since I love a good philosophical debate, I decided to stay with the issue.
Pianist Jeffrey Biegel explained his opinion with his Facebook comment: "It has to be the right combination. I am very careful how I pair myself with jazz, since I am admittedly not a jazz improviser. When it is written out in the score, like in the Concerti by Lalo Schifrin and Keith Emerson, it works absolutely. It's all a point of 'know thyself.' Maybe they will hit it off and do well, who knows."

So, I am just following arguments regarding the obviously delicate issue of the authenticity of the score and the performer's commitment to it.

According to Tim Smith's NPR guide to Classical Music, "… no two interpretations of the same musical score are identical, since every musician brings his own ideas and talent as well as personal understanding to the performance, crafting it according to his taste." Taste in turn is influenced by zeitgeist and cultural background. The question, as I see it, is where an artist's obligation to the composer ends and the freedom of the performer starts.

Does a musician have the right to alter classical scores in an educated but personal way, in order to give a piece of music their new and fresh take on it? May a musician introduce the music of a preeminent composer using different instrumental or even stylistic and rhythmic alternatives? What about improvisations on known themes? How far should the artist be allowed to go? What are the parameters of good taste?

Historically, this problem was handled generously. For baroque singers and instrumentalists there was even a kind of expectation, if not obligation, to embellish the melodic line. Improvisations were part of the classic vocabulary for composers in performance, and other musicians regularly added their variations, as the example of improvised cadenza performances shows. Good old Liszt took his freedom and chances with transcriptions, while at the same time promoting their composers.

So when did it become so problematic to take any freedom with the urtext, and when did even slightly deviating interpretations start being handled as moral obscenities? In an attempt to recreate historic sounds and playing styles, the historical authenticity movement and its elaborated standards may, in its 30 years of existence, have added to a certain puritan judgment of performances. Overly indulgent versions of schmaltzy interpretations, as well as so-called jazzy, amorphously rhythmic distortions of beloved classics may have rightfully triggered intolerance toward the whole idea of free interpretation.

Jeffrey Biegel, a classical pianist of the younger generation, does consider practical considerations as well as the ongoing discussion about the "ethnicity" in classical music transcriptions and their modified versions. In the summer of 2008, he engaged on his Facebook page, as well as on the Piano World website, in a wide discussion about the pros and cons of improvising within Mozart's sonatas.

He wrote: "In recording the complete Mozart piano sonata cycle… [I] have written in my own slight variants to the urtext for the repeat sections. It is a daring step to take, and I am being careful to add embellishments and alternate rhythmic figures (triplets rather than duplets and vice versa) to make the repeat sections interesting. Mozart was himself an amazing improviser, and would have surely played his own pieces differently every time."

Obviously, when writing this, Mr. Biegel had his own experiences with transcribing famous works already. In 2001, his transcription of Balakirev's "Islamey Fantasy" for piano and orchestra was premiered at Alice Tully Hall in New York. In 2006, he arranged the piano part for Billy Joel's "Symphonic Fantasies" and edited an array of piano literature. This included Schumann's "Kinderszenen" for the notable Schirmer Edition which is seen as a prime example of his sensitivity in handling the score.

His account of how he got to record the solo piano transcription of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" (released by Naxos in June 2009) describes one of the many undertakings of this young pianist, composer and arranger.

The "Four Seasons" project got started when, several years ago, he was invited to play for the Chamber Players International on Long Island, with a string quartet playing their respective parts.

"I wondered where the violin solo was, and was told: 'There isn't any, you're it.' It puzzled me, but in receiving the solo piano arrangement, published by Ricordi (the arranger's name was not listed) I realized how interesting the piece truly is on the piano – with or without strings. I added Baroque style improvisational 'filler' material, especially on long-held notes and scalier figurations between larger intervals. I was careful to keep it all in the style without over-romanticizing anything."

Biegel soon realized that this would make for a splendid recording, and, luckily, he was able to secure a grant, and Naxos agreed to arrange everything else, like the physical CD production. The CD was released in June of 2009 and received fine reviews.

Jed Distler of Classics Today comments: "… thanks to his vivacious, gorgeously detailed, thoroughly committed piano playing that constantly delights … his wealth of tone color … he precludes any danger of the music turning percussive or tinkly … What easily could have been a gimmick turns out to be no less than one of 2009's most enjoyable piano recordings."

"There are also two solo piano arrangements on the 'Four Seasons' project," Biegel adds. "These arrangements are created by my close friend Andrew Gentile, who took the Mandolin Concerto in C Major and the Lute Concerto in D Major, and without the use of any printed scores created the arrangements."

I was able to witness the effect of the transcription on Vivaldi's famous work at Jeffrey Biegel's New York premiere in November 2009. Biegel was performing with the Metro Chamber Orchestra under its artistic director Phillip Nuzzo.
Although slightly surprising at first there was a freshness quietly gaining momentum. Thanks to Mr. Biegel's great pianistic command something clearly different, yet equally beautiful, was being presented.

Such was the case at yet another recent recording of transcriptions — "Bach Transcribed" performed by pianist Alessio Bax and named CD of the Week by Classic FM. Bax also took an active role in transcribing one of the pieces, the F minor keyboard Concerto. Here, especially in the slow movement, his lyrical capacity has an opportunity to shine through. Praising Alessio Bax's performance, Gramophone magazine states: "He replicates pizzicato accompaniment to such tasteful and eloquent effect that you don't miss the string section."

Having been present at the CD release at Le Possion Rouge, the now venerable location of choice for classical music events with a party flavor, I could only marvel at what Gramophone calls Alessio's "extraordinary pianism." What also astonished me is the fact that with all the historic varying recreations and reinterpretations of J.S. Bach's fundamentally genial works, something very new and individual emerged from something familiar and beloved. Alessio Bax's magnificent pianistic performance brought this new substance to life in its fullest possible expression.

In April of this year, Bax was honored with the annual Avery Fisher Career Grant for 2009, following in the footsteps of violinists Joshua Bell, Hillary Hahn, and Gil Shaham — all talented instrumentalists of a young generation of artists showing great potential for solo careers.

What gave the evening at the Poisson Rouge an added dimension, and again brought the differences between the jazz and classical approach to my attention, was Alessio's idea to invite his friend, jazz pianist Dan Tepfer, who played excerpts of his own rendering of Bach's "Goldberg Variations," adding his jazz improvisations to Bach's score.

Camille Saint-Saens' Piano Transcriptions by Lucille Chung, an album that has just been chosen as Discovery CD of the Month by La Scena Musicale in November 2009, unearths, as her website explains, "… compositions by Saint-Saens that span a period of 30 years, including works originally conceived for piano and orchestra such as the concerto no. 2, transcribed by Georges Bizet for solo piano, and 'Wedding Cake' and 'Africa' in Saint-Saens' own finger-twisting solo version."

"Finger- twisting" is an interesting choice of words, and a very valid observation, especially when relating to the arranging for piano solo parts of previously different instrumental or even orchestral arrangements.

There is a distinct way of writing for every instrument, and once the instrument changes, so does the arrangement of its score. In order to translate the musical idea from one instrument to another, certain characteristics do change as well. For example, the density of a passage that was played by an orchestra and is now rearranged as piano score will bear difficulties on its own to portray the different structure. The pianist will have to technically make up for "the missing instruments" in a pianistic, very virtuosic manner.

It is very likely that there will be additional chords, arpeggios, and all kinds of difficult passage work integrated to upscale the piano score. This will be done according to the characteristics of the historically varying taste of the arrangement, burdening the pianist with an additional layer of stylistic interpretation, on top of the originally conceived composition.

In the hands of Lucille Chung this does not seem to be any problem whatsoever. With her usual élan, she delivered the most zealous performance, in which she, seemingly effortless, handled the most vociferously difficult passages in a musically always convincing way.

Particularly in the case of transcriptions, it certainly depends very much on the presentation of the performer to bring out all the specific characteristics demanded of the "new version" of a piece.

Lucille Chung commented on this process in La Scena Musicale, on the occasion of the release of her CD by XXI Records: "The challenges of playing transcriptions lay in the credibility of the orchestra and the piano part as one, and in preserving the right colors and nuances."

And she continues:"… also the timing [is essential]. An orchestra is much more ample, vast and takes more sound – so the timing is different from just playing solo parts. I studied the core and the instrumentation to know what should come out each time. It's important to get the same character as the orchestral piece, to sound like strings here or timpani there, to also make it sound more like a dialogue."

Transcriptions seem to be meeting a new and popular demand. At the famed Verbier Festival last summer (2009), Lucille Chung and Alessio Bax, who are also married to each other and perform together often, took part in an interesting cooperative performance with Emanuel Ax, as well as pianists J. Quentin, S. Trpceski, N. Goerner and J. Wang. Besides various arrangements for four and six hands piano, like Strauss' "Radetsky March" and "Trisch-Trash Polka" for six hands, they performed a transcription by M. Wilberg of "Carmen Suite" for four pianos, and Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" for four pianos. The transcription was by N. Economou, and although I was not able to hear that presentation, I was told that it was most memorable for its elaborate production and the cooperation between the participating pianists who took turns performing.

I also can really relate to what Lucille says about the diversity of musical offerings: "Some musicians can specialize in a composer or style, but I really enjoy how working within one style can make me look at another in a different light. Music transcends its stylistic and historical roots." And while not all outputs are equally convincing, there is, arguably, a certain relevance to be found in each.

In dealing with the question of how to perform great works, I am really with Allan Kozinn:

A great work can be interpreted innumerable ways, and while some of them add nothing to the unfolding dialogue among a composer, a work, and an audience, it is surprising how many readings yield fresh insights about works that have been kicking around for a couple of hundred years. There is no single, absolute, correct way to play a piece, and although it can be argued that there are plenty of wrong ways, the fact is that an approach that one listener will consider insupportably eccentric may illuminate a work completely for someone else. (The New York Times Essential Library, 2004)

 

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About Ilona Oltuski