October 15, 2020


Hummel: Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 arranged for Flute, Violin, Cello and Piano; Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 20. Aurélia Visovan, piano; Anna Besson, flute; Cecilia Bernardini, violin; Marcus van den Munckhof, cello. Ricercar. $18.99.

Bruckner: Symphony No. 0, transcribed for organ by Erwin Horn; Overture in G minor, transcribed for organ by Rudolf Innig; Philipp Maintz: choralvorspiel LI (kyrie XI, orbis factor – brucknerfenster I). Hansjörg Albrecht, organ. Oehms. $14.99.

     There were excellent reasons in the 19th century to take works that are now considered canonical and transcribe, rearrange and generally (by modern standards) do violence to them and to the composers who conceptualized them in specific ways. In the lifetime of Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) – student of Mozart, friend and sometime rival of Beethoven, famed virtuoso pianist in the days just before the super-virtuosi such as Liszt entered the limelight – orchestral concerts were few and far between. Access to the concerts was limited and often difficult. Travel to the concerts was time-consuming and sometimes impossible. Recordings did not exist. There was simply no way for most people to hear “canonical” works, which at the time were anything but commonly known and certainly not universally acknowledged as masterpieces. But this was also a time when amateur musical performances, both for the nobility and for the growing middle class, were increasingly common – a time when being a cultured European citizen meant playing at least one instrument at least passingly well. And thus Hummel, as a small but important part of his musical production, created versions of Mozart and Beethoven works that could be played at home or in small spaces by reasonably talented amateurs – spreading the word, spreading the music, in the only reasonably effective way available. The Hummel transcriptions are uniformly well-done, sensitive to their creators’ intentions, and produced with the adeptness of a composer who was quite skilled in his own right. These transcriptions are no longer “needed” for their original purpose, which has long been supplanted by recordings and easy access to live performances. But for their insight into the original works as they were seen in or near their own time, and for the simple pleasure of hearing skillful chamber-music reductions of wonderful music, the Hummel transcriptions are decidedly worthwhile.

     One of Hummel’s efforts that appears on a new Ricercar CD is especially creative and, in its own way, rather amazing: Hummel’s transcription of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24, the amazing and deeply moving C minor piece that is the only piano concerto that Mozart ended in the minor key rather than the relative major. Hummel was here faced with a significant problem in needing the pianist to be both the soloist and a member of the accompanying quintet – and his solution is quite delightful, if (by modern standards) rather sacrilegious. Hummel used his own skill as composer/pianist to rewrite the concerto’s solo part into a more-virtuosic one – something more typical of the early Romantic era. He takes the piano through a wider range, a full octave above Mozart’s, and creates a whole series of embellishments and ornaments (especially noticeably in the slow movement) that very effectively distinguish piano-as-soloist from piano-as-ensemble-member. In the process, the changes alter the feeling and effect of the concerto – and not to its betterment, by the standards of a time when it is very well-known. But that was not Hummel’s time, and when this transcription was done, it surely seemed more a tribute than a graffito. It is quite fascinating to hear in Aurélia Visovan’s performance, doubly so because she plays it on a fortepiano of Hummel’s own era: a very fine Conrad Graf instrument dating to 1835. This is historically informed music-making at its best, providing a wonderful connection with a time long past and with music in a form long since supplanted – but filled with charms all its own. Also on the disc is Hummel’s transcription of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1, a more-respectful arrangement that hews more closely to the original because it can hew more closely to it: there is no dual role for the piano here, and Hummel can (in the main) simply give the wind parts to the flute, the string parts to the violin and cello, and the total-ensemble material to the piano. Even here, though, Hummel-as-composer finds small ways to emphasize elements that are clear in the full-orchestra version but would be difficult to communicate with only four instruments: he changes the flute line at the start of the symphony, for example, better to reflect an orchestral sound that the quartet cannot by itself duplicate. Anna Besson, Cecilia Bernardini and Marcus van den Munckhof play in fine chamber-music form with Visovan in both the Mozart and Beethoven transcriptions, both of which turn out to be worth hearing on their own in addition to offering listeners a kind of musical time travel. And the disc also includes one of Hummel’s own works, which helps put his transcription skill into perspective: his fantasia-like F minor sonata, Op. 20, which uses the darkness of its minor key quite differently from the way Mozart used C minor and which mixes early-Romanic intensity with a level of classical poise that Hummel retained throughout his compositional life. Unfortunately, this recording omits the exposition repeat in the first movement, offering it only in an alternative online version of the music. This was done, supposedly, because the repeat would not fit on a commercial CD – but CDs are no longer strictly limited to 80 minutes, and while this one does indeed run just under 79 minutes without the repeat, it would last only 82 with it, and that should no longer have been an issue. In any case, Visovan performs this dramatic and emotive sonata very well, and in it, Hummel shows how thoroughly he understood the abilities and limitations of the fortepiano of his time, using its capabilities to their fullest effect. This is a distinctive and unusual disc – and an unusually interesting one.

     The reason for transcribing Bruckner’s symphonies for organ is harder to come by – in simple fact, there is none. But that is not stopping various musicians from doing so anyway, and a new Oehms CD featuring Hansjörg Albrecht playing the Bruckner-Organ at the Stiftskirche St. Florian in Linz, Austria, is in fact projected to be the first of a series featuring all the symphonies except the “No. 00” that was written when Bruckner was a student. It is certainly true that Bruckner was himself an organist, and more famous as one, at least for a time, than as a composer. It is also certainly true that Bruckner’s symphonic style frequently has him using the instruments of an orchestra as if to duplicate organ sonorities: both his use of dynamics and his handling of orchestral sections show his familiarity with the organ and are evidence of his uniquely “organ-like” approach to symphonic construction. Yet despite these factors, it is undeniably the case that Bruckner wrote very little music for organ, only about half a dozen pieces. It was for improvisation on his chosen instrument that he was known in his time, and his improvisations have not been passed down. So this brings back the question of transcribing Bruckner symphonies for organ – and in truth, the only answer to “why?” is that performers like the idea of trying it. Matthias Giesen, for instance, transcribed Symphony No. 5 and recorded it, and that was an impressive endeavor even if, objectively speaking, a somewhat unjustifiable one. In the same way, this new set of Albrecht performances, which intends to use various organs with which Bruckner was associated, is fascinating in its own right, even with no very solid reason for being. Interestingly, Symphony No. 0 – composed after No. 1 but withdrawn by the composer – sounds quite good on the organ in Horn’s transcription, and Albrecht does a fine job of selecting registers and sonorities that reflect the emotional ebb and flow of the music. Pairing the symphony with the Overture in G minor, one of the composer’s student works, is an intriguing decision, allowing listeners to hear – perhaps more clearly on the organ than in the orchestral versions – just how far Bruckner had progressed between 1863 and 1869, the year he composed the symphony. Just to make this production even more interesting, it includes the first of what will be 10 newly created contemporary compositions collectively to be called “Bruckner Windows,” each by a different 21st-century composer and each planned to accompany the symphony with which it appears. The one by Philipp Maintz is certainly well-thought-through, incorporating material from some of Bruckner’s own Mass settings and producing a choral prelude that is effective enough, if perhaps a bit studied (or over-studied). As a five-minute break between the overture and symphony, though, it serves well enough, and adds to the attractiveness of a CD that is, on the surface, entirely wrong-headed, but despite that is very worthwhile to hear and will be of considerable interest to dedicated Brucknerians.

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