Wednesday, August 8, 2007

"The Art of the Transcription"

Last week I described the program for Sandro Russo's piano recital as organized around the theme of the art of embellishment. I argued that, taken on those terms, the recital was most impressive, the only weak point being the performance of a Haydn sonata which made heavier cognitive demands on puzzling out just what was being embellished and how. This week, for her "Musical Lunch Break" recital, Tien Hsieh chose a far more challenging theme and, unfortunately, was less successful in meeting the challenge. That theme is the title of this post. I use quotation marks because it happened to be the title of a recital that Earl Wild gave in Carnegie Hall in the fall of 1981, which was subsequently released as a recording. (As a footnote, that recital happened to be my first date with the woman who would later be my life; so I have very fond memories of it!) Wild was most judicious in his choice of title, because his performances made it clear that there was an art to both composing and performing transcriptions that was qualitatively different from the performance of works composed for solo piano. The problem is one of juggling multiple levels of interpretation of the "text." The "original text" is the work being transcribed; but the "text" of the transcription is a reflection of both that work and the impressions of the work by the composer of the transcription. The performer then has to establish his own impressions of how both the "original text" and the transcription can be presented to the audience. Needless to say, this requires as thorough an understanding of the original as of the transcription; and Ms. Hsieh was, for the most part, not particularly convincing in regard to either level of understanding.

This was most apparent in her performance of Liszt's transcription of Beethoven's only song cycle, An die Ferne Geliebte. Beethoven was rarely at the top of his game when writing for voice, but I happen to have a soft spot for this work, probably because in his play, Beethoven's Tenth, Peter Ustinov conjured up a scene in which Beethoven, having come back to life in the twentieth century and had his hearing restored (don't ask), coaches a soprano in singing the first song in the cycle. This scene was convincing enough to change the way I listened to Beethoven (whether or not its message was musicologically sound); and that is more than I can say about just about any of the scenes from Amadeus! Having said all that, I should also point out that Liszt was not at the top of his game for this particular transcription, either, particularly when it is compared against his transcriptions of Schubert Lieder that have been performed so well by pianists like Wild and Jorge Bolet. Still, Hsieh's performance left me wondering if she had ever tried to accompany a vocalist's performance of this cycle, since it invoked no understanding at all of what Beethoven had been doing, even to the point of ignoring where the commas were in the text. (That text is included in the Peters edition of this transcription.)

Things were somewhat better in Hsieh's performance of Liszt's transcription of Bach's G minor organ fantasy and fugue (BWV 542); but Liszt brought better understanding to this transcription, probably because of his own experience with playing the organ. There are a lot of "grand sounds" in both parts of this work. Liszt was clearly interested in capturing that grandeur, and Hsieh was not shy about accommodating his demands. At the same time she brought a delicacy to the exposition of the fugue subjects that treated all four voices (the fourth is a "late arrival") with the individual attention they deserved. Of the two Bach transcriptions she performed, this one was truer to its "original text," which had a lot to do with why listening to it was so satisfying.

The other was Rachmaninoff's transcription of three movements from the E major partita for solo violin (BWV 1006), in which there is a heavy element of Rachmaninoff trying to upstage Bach (fortunately without the blatant vulgarity that Lukas Foss invoked in the "Phorion" movement of his "Baroque Variations"). Nevertheless, I seem to recall that the recording that Rachmaninoff made of these transcriptions had the decency to recognize that the "Gavotte" and "Gigue" movements were dance pieces that benefited from a relatively steady tempo. Notwithstanding a Romantic "tradition" of pulling tempi like pieces of taffy, Hsieh's performances were far from danceable. The "Prelude," however, was suitably dazzling in the best Rachmaninoff tradition.

The only other transcription of a Prokofiev treatment of a Buxtehude organ prelude and fugue with which I was totally unfamiliar. As a matter of fact, until this concert I had been unaware that Prokofiev had attempted this "art of the transcription" (at least not for any music other than his own). This left me at a disadvantage with regard to both the "original text" and the transcription, and I fear that the performance did little for me. On the other hand what was I to expect? Was this meant to invoke the kind of interest that had motivated Bach to make a pilgrimage to Lübeck to hear Buxtehude at the top of his game? Also, if my recording of the complete organ works of Buxtehude includes this in the "Epiphany" section, does that mean it has a liturgical connotation? No such sense was evident in Hsieh's performance.

After all the transcriptions, Hsieh concluded with the first of Liszt's "Mephisto" waltzes. Once again, there was nothing particularly danceable in this performance; but this time it was Liszt at work (being "diabolic"). Unfortunately, the performance was more rambling than diabolic, doing little to invoke the elements of tension and suspense that give this piece all of its impact. The notes were all there, but Mephisto was absent.

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