The beauty of Beethoven's symphonies arranged for piano duet
Tessa Uys and Ben Schoeman
Friday, April 21, 2023
Tessa Uys and Ben Schoeman make the case for exploring Beethoven's symphonies in their piano duet arrangements by Xaver Scharwenka
Transcriptions and arrangements such as those of composer-pianist Xaver Scharwenka (1850-1924) have been neglected over the past century, partly because they have gone out of print. They present apprentice and concert pianists with the challenge of coming closer to the magnitude of Beethoven’s orchestral works and we see it as our task to prevent these transcriptions from becoming extinct.
By the time Scharwenka composed his arrangements in the early 1900s, the piano was physically capable of more than it had been when Carl Czerny first arranged Beethoven’s symphonies for piano duet in the 1830s.
Scharwenka did not only attempt to bring justice to Beethoven’s intricate orchestral lines and textures, but he evidently wanted to imitate the grand soundscapes of a symphony orchestra.
This indicates to us that his raison d’être in transcribing these symphonies was, not merely to bring this music into the home, but also to produce substantial concert works.
One should not forget that Scharwenka falls more within the sphere of Late Romanticism and his own orchestration in his Piano Concertos and opera Mataswintha coloured his perspectives on compiling the piano duet versions of Beethoven’s Symphonies. He would also have seen Liszt’s published arrangements by that point and would have pondered ways in which to enhance the medium.
When Liszt set about transcribing the complete Beethoven symphonies for piano solo and even two pianos, his project eventually ground to a halt when he uttered the following: 'after various endeavours one way and another, I became inevitably and distinctly convinced of the impossibility of making any pianoforte arrangement of the fourth movement [of the Ninth Symphony] for two hands that could in any way be even approximately effective or satisfactory'.
Scharwenka, on the other hand, rose above this challenge by using two players and therefore four hands to undertake the representation of this wide plethora of orchestral and vocal forces.
Scharwenka’s arrangements are for one piano (with two players), primarily for the simple reason that most households at the time would not have owned two instruments. In an age when CDs, Spotify and YouTube were unknown, and live concerts a prerogative of the wealthy, these piano duet arrangements reflected what most people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries knew of these works.
We do enjoy the process of creating orchestral colours within the more intimate medium of four hands playing at one keyboard. We would also like to highlight our personal historical connection to this music – particularly the Zeitgeist of Berlin, the city where Scharwenka lived and worked. Tessa's mother Helga Bassel was a concert pianist who also hailed from Berlin, and in the 1930s had to seek refuge in Cape Town.
Between six and seven thousand German Jews went to South Africa during that period to escape Nazi tyranny. With so many having had to relinquish family and friends and experiencing the loss of their cultural environment, Helga Bassel was indeed fortunate in that she was able to leave Germany accompanied by her Blüthner grand piano and her collection of piano music which included Scharwenka’s duo transcriptions of the nine Beethoven symphonies.
Emigré musicians like Bassel greatly enriched the wider society and made valuable contributions to musical life in Cape Town. Tessa grew up in this vibrant cultural sphere and remembers hearing all Beethoven’s symphonies performed by the Cape Town Municipal Orchestra, largely composed of refugees hailing from all over Europe.
Having recorded Beethoven’s Second and Seventh Symphonies for SOMM Recordings Volume 3, we were thus afforded the opportunity to reconnect with our cultural roots and also to experience Beethoven in two different creative guises – the ebullient, almost Haydnesque Classicism in the Second Symphony in contrast to the almost violent Romantic narrative of the Seventh Symphony, named the 'apotheosis of the dance' by Richard Wagner.
From an idiomatic perspective, the two works consequently pose distinctive challenges within the piano duet genre, representing the stylistic evolution of Beethoven himself. The accompanying video includes the opening of the well-known second movement (Allegretto) of the Seventh Symphony.
Volume 3 of the Tessa Uys and Ben Schoeman Piano Duo’s ground-breaking series exploring Franz Xaver Scharwenka’s arrangements of Beethoven Symphonies is out today on SOMM Recordings.