October 03, 2019
(++++) THE UNEXPECTED PIANO
Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 44 (“Trauer”), 75, and 92 (“Oxford”). Ivan Ilić, piano. Chandos. $18.99.
Beethoven: The Creatures of Prometheus (complete). Warren Lee, piano. Naxos. $12.99.
Ever since recorded music became widely available, listeners have been able to hear pieces that interest them away from any sort of performance space, at whatever time they like. But in the many years before Edison cylinders and Welte-Mignon piano rolls, matters were entirely different: you had to attend a performance, if one was available, or you had to play the music yourself, alone or with a group of friends. As a result, there was a longstanding cottage industry in transcribing popular works for amateur performance – and the symphonies of Haydn were decidedly popular. A composer/conductor named Carl David Stegmann (1751-1826) – who was also a tenor and harpsichordist! – prepared some two dozen piano transcriptions of Haydn symphonies for his friend, publisher Nikolaus Simrock, in the years after Haydn’s death in 1809. Intended strictly for private use, these versions are not showy and not designed to display a performer’s prowess – unlike later transcriptions, such as Liszt’s of Beethoven’s symphonies. The Stegmann versions are intended to be easily played by amateurs, thus making Haydn’s symphonies much more widely accessible – and, not coincidentally, giving Simrock additional material to sell. The Stegmann versions eventually disappeared and were only rediscovered in 2015, when they were shown to pianist Ivan Ilić – who has now released three of them as world première recordings on Chandos. There is considerable irony here: the release in recorded form of transcriptions specifically created as a way to have access to music in the days long before recordings existed. And the CD is more a curiosity than a major addition to recordings of Haydn symphonies: nothing Stegmann produced comes close to preserving Haydn’s wonderful instrumental effects and his highly skilled orchestrations. Furthermore, Ilić performs the transcriptions on a modern concert grand, whose sound is far from that of the early-19th-century pianos for which Stegmann created them. Nevertheless, this disc is a fascinating one that lovers of Haydn will very much enjoy. Ilić chooses three very different symphonies to play, from three very different times in Haydn’s compositional life. No. 44 in E minor, whose title translates as “Mourning,” is from the Sturm und Drang period that culminated in No. 49, “La Passione.” No. 44 dates to 1770-71 and is severe and darkly atmospheric throughout. No.75 in D (1779) is brighter and grander in concept, opening with a slow introduction that is the only one Haydn ever marked Grave. This symphony anticipates the later “Paris” and “London” symphonies in several ways, and also contains some distinctly operatic flourishes. No. 92 in G, “Oxford” (1789), is the best-known of these three works and was Haydn’s last symphony before the dozen in the “London” series. It is a tightly knit piece filled with splendid orchestral touches (inevitably missing in Stegmann’s transcription) and featuring an outgoing style accentuated by the use of two trumpets and timpani. Neither here nor in Nos. 44 and 75 does Stegmann attempt to reproduce the orchestral effects that Haydn created, as Liszt would later endeavor to reproduce Beethoven’s. Instead, Stegmann opts for clear, carefully constructed transcriptions that focus on the melodic lines of each movement and decorate them as appropriate without attempting to over-complicate matters in a way that would make it hard for amateurs to perform the pieces. Ilić is absolutely right to give these straightforward transcriptions straightforward performances, and he does so with considerable skill. Despite the anachronistic piano sound, the CD provides a unique opportunity to hear these Haydn symphonies as most people of the early 19th century would have had to hear them – and it whets the appetite for hoped-for additional discs of Stegmann’s Haydn transcriptions.
The piano version of Beethoven’s only full-length ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus, is no transcription: this is the way Beethoven’s music was originally published, shortly after the première of the ballet in 1801 – the orchestral parts did not appear until 1804. So it is scarcely surprising that the music here reflects Beethoven in a way that Stegmann’s transcriptions do not fully reflect Haydn. In fact, in Warren Lee’s new recording for Naxos, the piano version of the ballet stands up very well to its orchestral counterpart – also not a surprise in light of Beethoven’s own pianistic prowess. The best-known part of the ballet is its conclusion, which uses the theme that Beethoven was later to reuse and expand in the finale of his “Eroica” symphony. The overture to The Creatures of Prometheus also is heard on its own from time to time. But little of the remaining music is played often – and it is this less-known material that especially shines in Lee’s performance. The ballet (whose libretto has not survived, although much of the action can be inferred from the music and contemporary reports) generally has a lighter touch than is usually considered “Beethovenian,” although the storm at its opening proffers some of the drama more familiar from other works. The lilting dances and delicate scene-painting show a side of Beethoven quite different from the heaven-storming usually associated with him. In the orchestral version of The Creatures of Prometheus, Beethoven tried some experiments that do not fully come through in the piano music – for example, the ensemble includes both harp and basset horn. But the overall pastoral flavor of the material comes across very well indeed on piano, and Lee’s nicely paced performance is distinctly danceable in terms of both tempo and rhythm. A good deal of the ballet is actually about music – Orpheus is one character in it, Pan appears to teach a pastoral dance, and Terpsichore and other Muses are in it as well – and Beethoven does a fine job characterizing the appearances of the music-related stage elements. Like Ilić, Lee performs on a modern piano, but The Creatures of Prometheus, like the Stegmann transcriptions of Haydn, should really be heard on a fortepiano or an instrument built no later than, say, 1830. However, Lee approaches this material with a light touch that is apt for the music itself and that also does not overuse the broader, deeper sound and greater intensity of which modern pianos are capable. Although The Creatures of Prometheus is of greater interest in its better-known orchestral guise, the piano version has enough felicities of expression to make it worth hearing. And it is unusual enough so that listeners who enjoy the ballet will find this release to be a fine complement to recordings made with full orchestra.