Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Less is more

During a career filled with as many failures as triumphs, and a life with an equal measure of pain and delight, Robert Schumann often seemed to be swimming against the flow. While the great virtuoso composers like Liszt and Paganini were creating a new concerto paradigm of the hero (soloist) fighting against the world (orchestra), Schumann in 1850 wrote his cello concerto as a "Concert piece for cello with orchestral accompaniment." This more organic, integrated music never caught on during his lifetime, and it wasn't until well into the 20th century that it became part of the standard cello concerto repertoire. Schumann himself suggested a chamber version of the piece, though he never had a chance to make it happen.

The idea of illuminating the inner structures and meaning and the outer textures of an orchestral work by subtraction has a long and honourable tradition. Liszt's own transcriptions of Beethoven's Symphonies for solo piano were like virtuoso x-rays. Meanwhile, Hummel's chamber reductions of Mozart's Piano Concertos were designed to bring the music from the concert hall to the middle class music rooms of Germany.  In those days such reductions were often a strategy to build markets and sell sheet music.

In his own reduction Schumann would have been mainly interested, I think, in exploring interesting musical issues relating to orchestral vs. chamber music textures and colours. In their outstanding version on this new Sono Luminus disc (to be released August 26, 2016), Zuill Bailey, the Ying Quartet and Julliard composer Philip Lasser, do just that. This outstanding collaboration seems to have been similar to a big band jazz arrangement: Lasser provided the basic charts, and the performers worked out a final performing version following significant give-and-take, and, I'm sure, some improvisation. This is an completely successful project: I've listened to this piece often in the past week or so, and it convinces me completely. It doesn't make one forget the orchestral version, but I rate it very close as a separate work.

Meanwhile, the Beethoven arrangement (an anonymous one from not too long after Beethoven's death) opens up the Kreutzer Sonata to emphasize its implicit concertante nature. This is a very interesting experiment, but it's not at the level of the Schumann. Still, there's no denying the fun in listening, which comes partially, I think, from the obvious fun these musicians are having as they play with each other.

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