November 17, 2022


Schumann: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2, reorchestrated by Mahler. ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $13.99.

Liszt: Piano Transcription of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3; Alkan: Piano Transcription of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20. Paul Wee, piano. BIS. $19.99 (SACD).

György Kurtág: Signs, Games, and Messages; Aida Shirazi: Sign; Kay Rhie: Game; Jungyoon Wie: Message; Gabriela Lena Frank: Melodia para Movses; Bartók: Melodia, from Sonata for Solo Violin. Movses Pogossian, violin. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     Long before there was a movement to discover and implement historically informed performance practices, there was a determination to update and, as it were, upgrade older music to conform to newer tastes – while bringing acknowledged masterpieces to audiences that expected to hear them in the aural context to which they were accustomed. Indeed, it was the excesses of the “updating” phenomenon – the performance of Handel’s Messiah by gigantic vocal and instrumental forces, for example – that eventually fueled the historically-informed-performance movement. But it is worth remembering that many “fine-tunings” among updaters, far from being excessive, were subtle and carefully designed to encourage wider familiarity with and appreciation of music that, in its original form, would have been less appealing to audiences of the time. Mahler was an expert at fine-tunings of this careful sort, as well as an inveterate searcher for older works that, as a conductor, he could bring to his audiences – he completed Weber’s opera Die Drei Pintos, for example. Among the works that Mahler modified for performance by orchestras of his time (average size about 90-100) instead of those of earlier times (average size 45-50) were Schumann’s symphonies – works whose orchestration has long been a matter of some contention, not even fully satisfying the composer himself (his Symphony No. 4 in its most-often-heard later version is considerably denser and murkier than it is in its earlier, more-transparent form). Marin Alsop and the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra offer Schumann’s first two symphonies in Mahler’s reorchestrations on a new Naxos CD, and it is very interesting to hear just how well Mahler managed his modifications – even though they are not in line with today’s thinking, which tends to insist that originalism in connection with a composer’s work is the proper standard. Unlike Schumann himself when redoing his Symphony No. 4, Mahler in modifying Schumann’s Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 did not simply double a lot of the parts and create a deeper, denser sound. Instead, he retained the lightness and overall pleasantly bright tone of the first symphony, and the more-intense, Bach-and-Beethoven-infused approach of the second, while producing a sonic environment that makes the scores sound bigger (and thus better fitted for the concert halls of Mahler’s time than for those of Schumann’s) but in no way compromises their emotive integrity. Mahler was, after all, a great composer himself, and one who employed truly enormous orchestral forces in ways frequently reminiscent of chamber music: he understood perfectly how to contrast masses of sound with individuated sections in which very few instruments take part. In bringing that sensibility to Schumann’s first two symphonies, Mahler may have made them somewhat less “Schumannesque,” but he really did update them in a way that made them more apt to be enjoyed by listeners of his own time. Certainly this recording will not be anyone’s first choice for these symphonies today – but for the way it shines a new and different light on these now-highly-familiar works while retaining their essential character, it will be a fascinating supplement to whatever performances a modern listener most appreciates and enjoys.

     The differences from original material are a great deal more far-reaching when composers actually transcribe other composers’ complete works for new instruments – a longstanding practice that continues today but was at its height in the Romantic era of piano virtuosos. Herz, Thalberg, Czerny and others not only wrote their own music for performance but also adapted, rearranged, changed, repurposed, and thoroughly personalized other composers’ music for their own recitals. But there was more to this era than sheer flash and splendid technique. The very best composer-pianists possessed genuine sensitivity to others’ music and were determined to preserve its essential elements and highlight its communicative strength even while performing it in a way that the original composers never envisioned or intended. A superbly played BIS release featuring the exceptionally thoughtful as well as spectacularly skilled Paul Wee offers two fascinating examples of great composer-pianists’ transcriptions for the piano of other great composer-pianists’ music. When it comes to this sort of thing, Liszt’s transcriptions of all the Beethoven symphonies occupy a special, Olympian place. Liszt was neither the first nor the only musician of his time to transcribe the Beethoven symphonies for the now-much-expanded capabilities of the piano – an instrument whose bounds Beethoven himself was constantly seeking to increase. But it is Liszt’s versions of the Beethoven symphonies that are preeminent, and Wee’s performance clearly shows why. Liszt genuinely understood Beethoven’s compositional methodology, and was so thoroughly engrossed in finding apt ways to turn the symphonies into piano pieces that he worked on the set for almost three decades, from 1837 through the mid-1860s. What makes Wee’s rendition of Liszt’s version of the “Eroica” such a triumph is that Wee comprehends Liszt’s methods much as Liszt comprehended Beethoven’s. From the places where the piano obviously fits the symphony very well (the opening chords and other dramatic chordal passages throughout) to the ones where the piano has to be made to fit (the orchestrally colored moods of the finale), Wee finds and emphasizes the elements on which Liszt chose to focus, successfully glossing over those details that Liszt chose to omit in his grand conception of the transcription. Wee shows to excellent effect that Liszt’s version of this symphony is a great piano piece in its own right – one that goes well beyond merely reproducing (to the extent possible) the notes that Beethoven wrote. And then Wee goes himself one better with his performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 as reimagined by Charles-Valentin Alkan. What Alkan does lies beyond transcription: he actually changes this brilliant concerto into a brilliant piano piece – one that goes even further beyond the capabilities of the pianos of Mozart’s time than does Liszt’s “Eroica” beyond those of Beethoven’s era. Unlike Liszt in his Beethoven transcriptions, Alkan tries to cram pretty much everything that Mozart wrote into the piano version of this concerto – and then he adds still more, creating cadenzas for the first and last movements that expand on Mozart’s original in an utterly engaging taffy pull of sound that brings listeners fully into Alkan’s aural world before returning them, with flourishes and grace, to Mozart’s. Wee takes listeners along on this amazing roller-coaster ride with unerring skill and unsurpassed technique, reveling in the very elements that make Alkan’s Mozart shamelessly historically inappropriate: much of the concerto’s urbanity is lost here, but its thoughtfulness and depth of feeling are, if anything, heightened, in ways that only one of the greatest Romantic-era pianist-composers could heighten them.

     Mahler’s Schumann, Liszt’s Beethoven and Alkan’s Mozart are all tributes in their own ways, and the “tribute” form remains very much alive today, if scarcely at the Mahler/Liszt/Alkan level. Violinist Movses Pogossian offers an intriguing example of a contemporary “tribute” CD on a New Focus Recordings release whose center is György Kurtág (born 1926). Since 1989, Kurtág has been writing what he calls Signs, Games, and Messages for various instruments: violin, viola, cello, double bass, flute, oboe, and clarinet. Pogossian takes the 16 of these little pieces for violin – they are very little, most lasting only about one minute and none longer than five – and splits them into a sequence of 15, with No. 16 (the longest) separated by the interpolation of four “response” works to Kurtág’s creation, plus a performance of the Melodia movement from Bartók’s Sonata for Solo Violin. The entire structure here is obviously quite different from that employed by Mahler, Liszt or Alkan: the differences reflect contemporary “tribute” thinking as well as the nature of Kurtág’s music, which is minimalist in what is essentially the Webern mode. Pogossian reserves to himself the interpretation of the actual Signs, Games, and Messages that Kurtág created, which actually tie in interesting ways to music of times past: there is a Perpetuum Mobile that sounds vaguely Baroque, a Hommage à J.S.B. that does not, and a Hommage à John Cage whose main characteristic is a kind of stumbling awkwardness. The performance of these Kurtág miniatures constitutes one portion of Pogossian’s “tribute,” the other part being in the form of the interpolations that precede the last of the Kurtág pieces. These are the microtonal Sign by Aida Shirazi, the glissando-pervaded Game by Kay Rhie, the vibrato-focused Message by Jungyoon Wie, and the vaguely Bartókian Melodia para Movses by Gabriela Lena Frank – which is followed by rather than preceded by the Bartók movement on which it comments. The complex interrelationships among these works are more thoroughly “modern” than anything sought or accomplished by Mahler, Liszt or Alkan, and they produce a generally unsettling feeling that requires a firm grasp of Kurtág’s music in general and this set of short pieces in particular for the whole “tribute” element to take hold effectively. There is also on this CD an undercurrent of the Hungarian background of Kurtág himself, and his music, not only via the inclusion of some Bartók but also through the separation from the first 15 Signs, Games, and Messages from the concluding In Nomine – all’ongharese. This is a densely packed, very short (+++) CD: 42 minutes (the digital version includes additional material) in which Kurtág’s music and Pogossian’s fine playing and highly personal “tribute” thinking show, together, the ways in which composers’ works continue to be rethought and repositioned over time by those who are charged, or who charge themselves, with the responsibility of keeping those works communicative to new audiences.

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