Shrink an Orchestra to a Single Piano, Keeping the Magic

Shrink an Orchestra to a Single Piano, Keeping the Magic

In 1988, when I interviewed the pianist Vladimir Horowitz at his elegant Manhattan townhouse, I asked him if he had any regrets. His answer surprised me. He said he deeply regretted never having played Liszt’s transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies in public.

“These are the greatest works for the piano, tremendous works,” he said.

Transcriptions of Beethoven symphonies, long thought of as a little trashy, as the “greatest works” for the piano? Greater than, say, Beethoven’s piano sonatas?

Yes, Horowitz said, in the sense that these Liszt scores are arguments for what the piano is capable of — for what the piano, in essence, is meant for.

“For me, the piano is the orchestra,” he said. “I don’t like the sound of a piano as a piano. I like to imitate the orchestra — the oboe, the clarinet, the violin and, of course, the singing voice. Every note of those symphonies is in these Liszt works.”

He added that he played the transcriptions all the time for himself, but thought that audiences would not understand the music.

“We are such snobs,” he said ruefully.

Perhaps we are no longer so snobby. A new generation of pianists seems to have caught up with Horowitz’s perspective. Though they present daunting technical challenges, Liszt’s transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies — as well as his versions of other symphonic works, opera excerpts and songs — are not just virtuosic gimmicks. Rather, they are a great composer’s attempt to use his beloved piano as a means to recreate, penetrate and get at the essence of the original music — without the distractions of the orchestra or voice.

Recently there have been many notable examples of adventurous younger pianists not only championing transcriptions by Liszt and other composers, but also writing their own. Earlier this year, Behzod Abduraimov began a recital at the 92nd Street Y with Liszt’s transcription of Wagner’s “Liebestod” from “Tristan und Isolde,” and ended with Prokofiev’s transcriptions of 10 pieces from his own “Romeo and Juliet” ballet score.

A month later Beatrice Rana, for her New York recital debut at Zankel Hall, played dazzling transcriptions of three pieces from Stravinsky’s “Firebird.”

On his remarkable recent album, “Life,” the superb Igor Levit includes two Liszt transcriptions of Wagner (the “Liebestod” and the Solemn March to the Holy Grail from “Parsifal”) as well as Brahms’s transcription, for the left hand, of Bach’s Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 for Solo Violin.

On another recent album, Jeremy Denk took listeners on a seven-century survey of music, including his transcriptions of some medieval and Renaissance vocal pieces by Machaut, Ockeghem, Josquin and other early composers.

Horowitz, who died in 1989 at 86, believed that the piano’s adaptability is at once its limitation and its glory. This view was echoed by Alfred Brendel in his 2013 book “A Pianist’s A-Z”: The piano “serves a purpose,” he wrote; it’s an “instrument of transformation.” It permits the pianist to suggest the singing voice and the timbres of other instruments.

This “propensity for metamorphosis,” he writes, is “our supreme privilege.” A single pianist can take on the sole responsibility for a performance, becoming “his own conductor and singer.”

Fear of backlash from audiences and critics may have presented Horowitz from performing Liszt’s transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies. But Glenn Gould, who looked for opportunities to challenge assumptions, had no such reluctance. He recorded two of them: the Fifth and the Sixth Symphonies. The first movement of the Fifth offers exhilarating proof that Gould took these scores seriously.

To pick one classic recording of this orchestral staple for comparison, Karajan’s take on the first movement with the Berlin Philharmonic is stirring, weighty and rich. Gould could be a quirky interpreter. But his account of the Liszt transcription of that movement is straightforward and revelatory. Minus the myriad orchestra colorings, Gould’s spirited playing makes you listen anew to the music. Textures, inner voices and the grand structure of the piece emerge excitingly. Yet you also relish the performance as a sheer act of pianistic virtuosity.

It’s just as revealing to compare a few outstanding recent recordings of piano transcriptions with the original versions. Stewart Goodyear, taking up the legacy of Liszt, wrote an uncannily detailed and brilliant solo piano transcription of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” — not just the suite, but the entire two-act ballet score, which he recorded in 2015 on the Steinway & Sons label. This is a piece he has loved since childhood, he explains in the liner notes, and his affection comes through in every moment.

One might think that Tchaikovsky’s imaginative orchestration is integral to the pleasures of this music. During the Overture, for example, on Rostropovich’s stylish recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, the conductor lavishes attention on the various instrumental colors.

But Mr. Goodyear’s piano version of the same passage offers remarkable clarity — even at the lithe, sparkling tempo he takes. You hear every detail. In the manner of Horowitz, he tries to evoke on the piano the sounds of woodwinds, brass and light, rippling strings — and he succeeds. When I first heard this recording, I was impressed with the virtuosity and dedication. More important, though, I was reminded what ingenious music this is.

Mr. Denk has long been fascinated by the connections he hears between seemingly distant musical eras, a theme he explores extensively on his recent Nonesuch album. A standout example is Dufay’s 15th-century French chanson “Franc cuer gentil.” On a beautiful recorded version of the original by the ensemble Grand Désir, a radiant, light-voiced soprano sings the tune graciously, accompanied by supple lutes and other instruments.

But in his playing of the piano transcription, Mr. Denk highlights what you might not notice listening to the original: the intricacy of the counterpoint as lines mingle and cross; the jumpy vitality of the syncopated rhythms. The music sounds a little less dated, a little closer to our own time.

Sibelius’s wistful “Valse Triste,” with its restrained, sighing melody and warm, dusky strings, has become a popular encore piece. On his recording with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon), the conductor Neemi Järvi sensitively balances elegance and sadness.

But Alexandre Tharaud’s playing of a transcription, for a recording called “Autograph” (Erato), reminds you that this waltz may be sad, but it’s still a dance. The lilt and transparency of his playing lighten the mood — yet, somehow, the music seems even sadder than usual, perhaps because of the simplicity and directness of the solo piano arrangement.

Ms. Rana, who in the last few years has emerged as one of the outstanding pianists of her generation, had a lot on the line for her debut recital at Zankel this year. So it was a daring move to end with Guido Agosti’s 1928 transcription of the “Danse Infernale,” “Berceuse” and “Finale” from Stravinsky’s “The Firebird,” a ballet score best known today as a surefire symphonic work in the concert hall.

As a child I loved Stravinsky’s own recording of the piece, which even then impressed me as the ultimate in orchestral brilliance. Surely a piano transcription would risk sounding slick.

Not so. The slashing frenzy and harmonic grit of the “Dance Infernale,” the forlorn beauty of the “Berceuse,” and the incremental buildup in the jubilant, fanfare-like “Finale” all came through with stunning freshness in Mr. Rana’s solo performance.

Here she was being not just the conductor of Stravinsky’s breakthrough work, but also every instrument in the orchestra. Horowitz would have approved. And Liszt would have been proud.

Anthony Tommasini is the chief classical music critic. He writes about orchestras, opera and diverse styles of contemporary music, and he reports regularly from major international festivals. A pianist, he holds a Doctorate of Musical Arts from Boston University. @TommasiniNYT

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