The case for transcriptions
Wednesday, December 14, 2022
Pianist Paul Wee writes about his latest CD, Gramophone's December Album of the Month, recording transcribed solo piano versions of renowned orchestral works
“Why would I want to hear Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony played on the piano, when I can just as easily hear it in its original orchestral form?”
This attitude might appear superficially logical, but I would suggest that upon examination, this doesn’t actually reflect how most listeners approach transcriptions and arrangements. Few would suggest that Stravinsky’s stunning arrangement of Trois mouvements de Petrouchka for solo piano is redundant, purely because Petrouchka can readily be enjoyed in its original orchestral guise. Or – to reverse the direction of travel – Ravel’s glittering arrangement for orchestra of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition isn’t generally considered pointless, on the basis that one can turn instead to the composer’s original conception of this work for solo piano. In fact, transcriptions and arrangements can sometimes come to eclipse the original works that inspired them: many listeners (and perhaps even some pianists) may be surprised to learn that Liszt’s ubiquitous Liebestraum No. 3 S.541 is in fact a transcription for solo piano by Liszt of his own lied O lieb so lang du lieben kannst S.298.
We are talking here about strict or literal transcriptions, which endeavour to reproduce an original work on the piano in as faithful a manner to the original source material as possible (rather than paraphrases, which take their source material as inspirations for original free compositions for solo piano). It isn’t of course true to say that all such piano transcriptions or arrangements are worthy of our attention, whether on record or in the concert hall. But the best piano transcriptions, even of (very) familiar orchestral works, are undoubtedly worth your time. Consider what Vladimir Horowitz said, when asked in 1988 by Anthony Tommasini (then of the Boston Globe, more latterly of the New York Times) whether he had any regrets. Horowitz reportedly replied that he deeply regretted never having played Liszt’s transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies in public, and continued: “These are the greatest works for the piano – tremendous works.”
'Transcriptions can push boundaries...by re-imagining and augmenting the soundworld of the original composition'
The best piano transcriptions work because they successfully marry the most defining features of their underlying works with the unique characteristics of the piano. This is not a straightforward process for the transcriber. The piano is fundamentally a percussion instrument; unlike the orchestra or the human voice, it lacks the ability to sustain or swell a note after it has been struck. Moreover, many of the most effective piano writing techniques are rendered off-limits to the faithful transcriber, because – having no counterpart in orchestral writing – they are simply irrelevant to the exercise at hand (for example, Liszt’s transcriptions of Beethoven’s Symphonies are noticeably devoid of many of the figurations that are hallmarks of Liszt’s original piano compositions, from sparkling filigree passagework to blind or interlocking octave flurries). So transcribers must use all of their pianistic ingenuity to transpose a fundamentally non-pianistic soundworld across to the instrument’s 88 keys. This also explains why the best piano transcriptions can also be cruelly unforgiving to the pianist. Especially where the original work is well-known to the listener, any hint of struggle or labour in executing the transcriber’s demands can fundamentally compromise the effectiveness of the end result.
Yet where an effective transcription receives a successful performance, the results can be stunning. They can cast new light on well-known masterpieces, and make the familiar sound fresh. They can even push boundaries, whether by re-imagining and augmenting the soundworld of the original composition, as in Busoni’s famous piano transcription of Bach’s D minor Chaconne or Godowsky’s neglected piano transcriptions of selected Bach works for solo violin or cello; or by compressing both an orchestra and a piano concerto soloist into a pianist’s ten fingers, as in Alkan’s transcription of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor K.466 (and see, for a reverse “thought experiment”, Alkan’s own Concerto for Solo Piano, from Douze Études dans tous les tons mineurs Op.39). Whether in the hands of the great transcribers of the past (such as Liszt or Alkan) or today’s finest exponents of the art (such as Vyacheslav Gryaznov or Koji Attwood), they are celebrations of the piano and its capabilities. The best piano transcriptions are far more than mere shadows of the original works, and they are very much worth your time. Just ask Vladimir Horowitz.
Paul Wee's latest recording of Beethoven's 3rd Symphony (transcribed by Liszt) and Mozart's Piano Concerto No 20 is Gramophone's December Issue Recording of the Month. Read the review here