August 27, 2020


Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night’s Dream; The Fair Melusine. Duo Keira Piano Duo (Michela Chiara Borghese and Sabrina De Carlo). Brilliant Classics. $9.99.

Schumann: Symphony No. 2; Ferdinand Hiller: Symphony in E Minor. Pui Yan Ronald Lau, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     Franz Liszt’s famous determination to use the piano as “an orchestra in miniature” speaks to the numerous design and technical improvements made in the instrument in the 19th century, which together did indeed make it possible for a piano – whose span eventually grew to 11 octaves from the five of Beethoven’s time – to reproduce orchestral music effectively, although of course without orchestral coloration. As pianos improved and, not coincidentally, became more affordable through a degree of standardization, they turned into the central musical experience of a great many music lovers, making it possible to hear works that would otherwise be available only through their infrequent orchestral performances. Add to this situation the reality that composers had long produced music at the piano and then orchestrated it – or reduced orchestral pieces to piano works for reasons of their own – and the 19th century emerges as a time filled with now-little-heard keyboard versions of all sorts of well-known music. These pieces are little more than curiosities now that orchestral recordings are widely available, but they are interesting in their own right for showing how composers and skilled arrangers chose to get to the heart of works that are now almost always experienced in full-fledged instrumental guise. Mendelssohn, for example, made his own piano-four-hands arrangements of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the fantasy overture The Fair Melusine, and these receive virtuosic, strongly committed and emotional sensitive readings from the Duo Keira Piano Duo on a new Brilliant Classics CD. The music itself sounds, not to put too fine a point on it, rather weird, since the orchestral versions of these pieces are now so often heard. But there is no doubting the skill with which Mendelssohn adapted the music for piano: the rippling arpeggios that sound like waves, setting the scene for The Fair Melusine, have all the delicacy of tone-painting that one could wish, and the four chords that quietly open and close A Midsummer Night’s Dream are just as magical a curtain-raising and -lowering event on keyboard as on woodwinds. On the other hand, much of the musical argument throughout comes across as rather pale, since it is Mendelssohn’s expertise at orchestration that brings drama to The Fair Melusine and evokes the contrast between Shakespeare’s fairy band and “rude mechanicals” with such consummate skill. Even though the Nocturne is played delicately and sweetly here, and even though Borghese and De Carlo enthusiastically proclaim the “braying” sounds in the Bergamask Dance, these and the other elements of the music simply lack the finesse of the orchestral versions. And the famous Wedding March has considerably less of its usual splendor than usual. However, none of these matters really relates to the performers or, for that matter, to Mendelssohn’s well-made piano versions of the scores. Rather, they have to do with the inherent limitations of a percussion instrument, even a highly versatile one, in comparison with the flexibility and nuance available to a composer who utilizes a full orchestra.

     The same circumstances are evident on a new MSR Classics disc featuring pianist Pui Yan Ronald Lau performing two substantial symphonies, one of which he himself has transcribed for piano. Like the Mendelssohn disc, this one is fascinating for showing both the capabilities and the limitations of piano reductions of orchestral scores – even though, in both cases, listeners are far more likely to revert to the orchestral versions than to listen repeatedly to the piano ones. This CD has a strong Schumann orientation in ways both obvious and less-obvious. The clear one is the inclusion of Theodore Kirchner’s early-1880s piano transcription of Schumann’s Symphony No. 2, the least-often-heard of the composer’s four symphonies. This is a work that echoes both Beethoven and Bach in some explicit and less-than-explicit ways, and it has always been a tough nut for conductors to crack, mostly because the main theme of the first movement – which appears after a very extended introduction – has a quality both indecisive and lurching, making it difficult to pace well and present effectively. This seems not to trouble Ronald Lau at all: he moves enthusiastically from the opening Sostenuto assai section into the main portion of the movement, propelling it a bit more quickly than its Allegro ma non troppo indication would suggest and thereby giving it greater forward momentum than it usually has. This works quite well, as does the emphatic handling of the second-movement Scherzo – which is interesting for containing two entirely different Trio sections. The third movement here sounds a trifle cooler than it should for best effect – it is marked Adagio espressivo – but is sensitively presented, and the finale is a bit more stately than speedy (it is marked Allegro molto vivace). Still, the performance as a whole is convincing, its single greatest flaw being a certain level of de-emphasis of the four-note motto that Schumann uses in all movements except the third and that becomes a unifying force for the work as a whole. This world première recording of Kirchner’s transcription will not likely bring the symphony new fans, but it showcases the work effectively and makes for an interesting listening experience for those who already know the work. Also a world première, in this case of a transcription of a symphony far less familiar than any of those by Schumann, is Ronald Lau’s own version of Ferdinand Hiller’s Symphony in E minor. The Schumann connection here comes from the fact that Hiller (1811-1885) is remembered today primarily because he was the dedicatee of Schumann’s Piano Concerto (and also of Chopin’s Op. 15 Nocturnes). Hiller is also known for his relationship with Wagner, who once asked Hiller for a 2,000-thaler loan. But Hiller was a not-inconsiderable composer on his own, with about four symphonies to his credit (the exact number is not entirely clear), along with three piano concertos, a violin concerto, six operas, and a good deal of chamber music. The E minor symphony, Hiller’s Op. 67, dates to 1848 and bears the title Es muß doch Frühling werden, “But Spring Must Come.” Since there is nothing particularly springlike or pastoral about the work, the title could refer to the revolutionary uprisings of 1848, but that is speculative. In any case, the symphony is a substantial one that is well-crafted and makes fine use of the orchestra – a fact that of course is less than evident in Ronald Lau’s transcription. Here the more superficial elements of the symphony come through best, including the stormlike portion of the first movement and the forthrightly jubilant finale. The work is certainly less evocative than the “Spring” symphony by none other than Schumann (his No. 1), but the piano version shows Hiller to be a skilled composer if not a particularly felicitous tunesmith. Both this recording and the one of Mendelssohn’s self-transcriptions are highly interesting for the very skillful and committed playing by the pianists and the surprising musical insights made available through hearing works for orchestra in what is essentially stripped-down and “percussionized” form. The music does not really benefit from these transcriptions, but listeners do – through the chance to hear works they may already know well (or, in the case of the Hiller symphony, may not know at all) in a form that provides a kind of foundational skeleton for the music, atop which the composers’ orchestration skills provide considerably greater coloration.

No comments:

Post a Comment