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

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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)


About Ilona Oltuski