Adapting masterpieces for new instrument combinations is a daunting but rewarding process

Rem UrasinTue 30th September 2014

Rem Urasin explains the creative journey behind his Rachmaninov and Shostakovich arrangements for cello and piano

Soon after Boris Andrianov and I recorded the album of Cello Sonatas by Rachmaninov and Shostakovich, we decided to add Rachmaninov’s Romances to the repertoire. We weren’t the first ones to do so; Rachmaninov’s vocal pieces have previously been performed on the cello by Mischa Maisky and David Geringas. The interest that cellists have in vocal music is understandable – the timbre of the cello is closer to the human voice than that of any other instrument. Rachmaninov's Romances are particularly appealing to performers, due to their expressive melodies, as well as their dramatic and fragmented form. 

Each Romance is like a small poem, evocative with images vivid enough for the meaning to become evident to any listener, even in the absence of words. Of course, the pieces on the CD are not transcriptions in the true sense of the word, they may be considered, to a greater extent, as the rendition of Romances through the voice of the cello. Our role in this editing process was to find a register which fully reveals these images. 

While we were working on this, we decided to make the next CD a follow-up to the previous one and to dedicate it to the music of the same composers. However, in contrast to the first CD with its two large pieces, the second CD would consist of miniatures. As Shostakovich’s large musical catalogue doesn’t contain any miniatures for cello and piano, revisions needed to be made. Our choices were the Preludes from Op 24 (for piano), which are some of the most important and influential pieces of piano music of the 20th century. Vivid, dramatic, aphoristically concise and laconic, the preludes had already inspired the composers to make revisions. The musical language of Shostakovich’s piano pieces and the symphonic direction of his thought process encourage experimentation with different instruments. Differences in timbre increase the tension between contrasting melodic directions. Furthermore, the possibility of introducing strings helps to intensify the expressiveness of the high pitched tones - typical of Shostakovich. Both these enhancements are only possible with the use of such a tempered instrument, such as the piano. The most popular revisions of Shostakovich’s preludes include Borisovky and Drujinin's magnificent viola and piano editions, and Tziganov's violin and piano editions (and indeed, his revision received the highest approval of the composer). However, there are no revisions for cello and piano.

Modifying Shostakovich’s Preludes was difficult. It was immediately clear to me that the cello and the piano should be equal partners. This was the main distinction from the above mentioned violin and viola adaptations, in which the string instrument received the major part of the thematic material and the piano was relegated to an accompanying role. Different solutions were necessary for a cello and piano duet. These solutions were motivated by the particularities of the instruments, such as timbre, register and dynamics. 

Obviously, I didn’t aim to adapt all of 24 preludes, as in some cases it just wouldn’t have worked. On the other hand, some of the preludes were made for the cello. For instance, the Prelude in A major, with its cantilena-like bass melody, or the Prelude in D flat major, which combines the sonorous, mechanical ‘street organ’ sound of the accompaniment in the upper register (on the piano) with a circular waltz-like cello theme in the lower register. The latter sound creates an unusual motif with a comedic undertone. In other Preludes it is difficult to ascertain which instrument has a primary role, due to the difficult polyphonic style of the score. For instance, in the Prelude in G major, the cello theme is first introduced in counterpoint to the main theme, with the timbre of the former complementing the latter. However, then the cello line becomes the primary one, as intended by the composer. In the Prelude in B minor the cello mostly acts as an accompaniment to the piano, and so it is hardly possible for this Prelude to be played separately from the whole cycle of Preludes. While working on this endeavour, it helped me to focus on Shostakovich's works of chamber music, especially on his Cello Sonata, which was created around the same time as the Preludes. The adaptation of the Prelude in D major was influenced by an episode from the end of the Sonata with octave piano passages. The addition of the octave unisons made this dazzling prelude even more vivid and skilful.

But such a doubling-up of octaves was not always enough to increase the piano part to the size of a full duet. In other cases, it was necessary to introduce new melodic themes in middle tones. This was one of the most difficult parts of the adaptation process. Imagine trying to interfere with the polyphonic structure of a genius’s piece! This might seem overconfident, and even imprudent, but the logic of the development seemed to need such additions at times. It was with great consideration that I took on the responsibility of changing even a single tone in any piece. 

Apart from these moments, it is necessary to remember that although they may be concise; these Preludes still had to be vivid performance pieces.

It is always exciting to be doing something for the first time. Performing or recording any premiere is both exhilarating and full of responsibility (especially for a performance based on your own transcriptions). Recording this CD was one of the brightest experiences of our artistic careers. It is especially memorable because this was one of the last projects worked on by the audio director, the late Petr Kondrashin, a legendary director, esteemed musician and a wonderful person. 

Rem Urasin

'Boris Andrianov and Rem Urasin play Rachmaninov and Shostakovich'- on Quartz Music is out now. Urasin and Andrianov's previous recording of Rachmaninov and Shostakovich (Quartz QTZ2053) was a Gramophone Editor's Choice in September 2007. Read the review: http://www.gramophone.co.uk/review/rachmaninov-cello-sonata-op-19-shosta...

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