Playlist: great orchestrations

Gramophone Tue 3rd October 2017

How to give perfect voice to another composer's music, by James Jolly

Orchestrating another’s music throws up all sorts of stylistic issues and has resulted in some fascinating and deeply rewarding new compositions. One orchestration that has eclipsed the piano original in popularity is Maurice Ravel’s of Mussorgky’s Pictures at Exhibition; for a change why not try Leopold Stokowski’s orchestration in the magnificent recording by the Cleveland Orchestra and Oliver Knussen? (‘Catacombae’ is wonderfully imposing and the ‘Great Gate of Kiev’ caps the tour in a truly thrilling coup de théâtre.) Arnold Schoenberg’s orchestration of Brahms’s First Piano Quartet is another popular re-creation and rarely fails to bring a smile to the face at some of its more outrageous moments (that xylophone in the finale!) but it’s a version surely rooted in a deep love for the original. Edmund Rubbra’s orchestration of Brahms’s Handel Variations, taken up by conductors like Toscanini and Ormandy, is a very fine critique of the original piano work and is full of imaginative ideas, and when the final fugue comes hurtling out of the preceding variation, Rubbra pulls off a masterstroke of theatricality. Brahms, for some reason, has provided rich pickings for quite a number of orchestrators and Luciano Berio made a terrific version of the First Clarinet Sonata; again, a modern master with a fine ear for orchestral colour casts a striking new light on the masterpiece that is the original, and Berio seems to home in on the work’s autumnal colourings with particular perception. For a truly ravishing orchestral experience, Colin Matthews’s re-imaginings of Claude Debussy’s piano Préludes, commissioned and recorded by the Hallé Orchestra and Sir Mark Elder, is hard to beat. Not only has he completely assimilated the French sound world, but he has left enough of his own personality in the finished items, and – wonderfully – perfectly conveys the wit and charm of the originals. Also from our own time, I end with John Adams’s orchestration of Liszt’s intensely powerful and moving La Lugubre gondola (a dream-like late piano work written in memory of his son-in-law Richard Wagner which hints, harmonically, at Tristan und Isolde).

Tracks:

Mussorgsky/Stokowski Pictures at an Exhibition

Cleveland Orch / Knussen DG

Brahms/Schoenberg Piano Quartet No 1
BPO / Rattle Warner Classics

Brahms/Rubbra Variations on Theme by Handel

Cleveland Orch / Ashkenazy Decca

Brahms/Berio Clarinet Sonata No 1
Giuseppe Verdi SO / Chailly Decca

Debussy/C Matthews Préludes

Hallé / Elder Hallé

Liszt/Adams The Black Gondola

London Sinfonietta / Adams Nonesuch

 

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