Tuesday 29 January 2019

In transcription: Berlioz arranged Liszt and Richard Strauss arranged Willner at Conway Hall

Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, by William Turner, Italy, 1832 (Image (c) Tate, London 2014)
Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, by William Turner, Italy, 1832 (Image (c) Tate, London 2014)
Berlioz arr. Liszt Harald en Italie, Strauss arr. Willner Don Quixote; Rosalind Ventris, Karel Bredenhorst, Simon Callaghan; Conway Hall Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 27 January 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Two orchestral showpieces re-cast as works for solo instrument and piano

The re-casting of familiar orchestral works in pianistic guise was a standard part of musical life in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as enthusiastic amateurs would use these to familiarise themselves with the music and to gain enjoyment from performances at a time when gramophone records did not exist. They would enable people who might never have the chance to hear a work performed by orchestra, to experience the music in another form.

For the Sunday concert at Conway Hall on 27 January 2019, pianist Simon Callaghan (director of music for the Sunday Concerts Series) was joined by Rosalind Ventris (viola) and Karel Bredenhorst (cello) to perform two monolithic transcriptions of works for orchestra and soloist, Berlioz' Harold en Italie in a version for viola and piano by Franz Liszt, and Richard Strauss' Don Quixote, in a version for cello and piano by the Czech composer Arthur Willner.

Both works are notable for the richness and imagination of the orchestration, so it might seem perverse to reduce them down to just a piano and concertante instrument, but whilst there are indeed losses, there are also gains as the music gains a greater intimacy and the essential structure of the piece can be more easily discerned. It has to be admitted that neither is a work or great piano writing, both being closer to a highly effective transcribing of the orchestral lines than works of pianistic imagination, and both place great demands on the pianist (particulary the Liszt).

The concert opened with the Strauss, and here we were able to appreciate Callaghan's sympathetic approach to the music, making Richard Strauss on the piano flow as if naturally conceived, and indeed it was intriguing hearing the familiar textures in new guise. And there were plenty of moments, such as the tilting at windmills episode, where Callaghan was able to demonstrate some fine fingerwork.

Bredenhorst made a nicely mellow protagonist, perhaps more dynamic and less Autumnal than some. And, of course, the transcription places the cello part (intended more as primus inter pares rather than a true solo part) in greater spotlight. Both Bredenhorst and Callaghan brought deft touches of humour to the piece, with a finely wistful conclusion.

I have to admit that I did rather miss the colours of Strauss' orchestration, though Callaghan suggested colour and character in his playing, but perhaps more importantly I missed the sense of dialogue in the episodes with Sancho Panza and thought it a pity the transcription did not include the solo viola part.

Bredenhorst gave us some very stylish cello playing, and was complemented by Callaghan's superb tour de force in making the huge piano part work.

After the interval we heard Liszt's 1836 transcription of Berlioz' Harold en Italie, which had premiered in 1834. Liszt's trancriptions of Berlioz Symphonie fantastique and Harold en Italie were made out of Liszt's admiration for the composer and his desire to popularise the works.

Even more than in the Strauss, here we were very aware that this was not a concerto and there were plenty of passages were the soloist was silent or playing music intended to complement solo lines in the orchestra. But Ventris and Callaghan played the work with immense sympathy, responding to the more chamber scale and not trying to make it something it wasn't. So Callaghan's darkly concentrated account of the opening was complemented by Ventris' melancholy singing tone, with both made the music highly passionate. The second movement march of the pilgrims was highly atmospheric with some evocative string crossing from Ventris. Despite Callaghan's best efforts, the piano part in the serenade felt like a rather ordinary transcription of the orchestral lines without Liszt's usual imaginatinative re-composition, but Callaghan and Ventris brought out the lilting quality of the music. The finale has always been strange as the protagonist disappears from the musical argument for a long stretch, here Ventris moved to the side of the stage and left Callaghan to address the outrageous pianistic demands that Liszt makes in his version of the Orgie de brigands. Callaghan played it with real bravura, and gave us some rivetingly dramatic pianism, joined again by Ventris for the melancholy ending.

We were treated to an encore, Massenet's Elegie which enabled all three performers to play together for the first time.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • A powerful journey: Sir Colin Davis complete live Berlioz recordings on LSO Live  - CD review
  • Faure's Requiem from the Schola Cantorum of Cardinal Vaughan School (★★★) - CD review
  • Something of a discovery: Reverie, Icelandic art songs (★★★★) - CD review
  • Hugh Levick - Remnants of Symmetry (★★★★) - CD review
  • Everybody can! Nadine Benjamin's debut in Tosca (★★★★) - opera review
  • The main thing is to sing well and be a good performer: I chat to soprano Chiara Skerath, associate artist with The Mozartists and Classical Opera - interview 
  • Perhaps a film manqué: Stefan Herheim's Queen of Spades at Covent Garden (★★½) - opera review
  • Lux: A trio of striking works to celebrate the Norwegian girls' choir's 25th anniversary (★★★★) - CD review
  • Early and late: Schumann from Robin Tritschler & Graham Johnson at the Wigmore Hall (★★★★½) - concert review
  • Stories in music: Roses, Lilies & Other Flowers from The Telling (★★★★) - CD review
  • Bach in Cologne: Christmas Oratorio performed in the Kölner Philharmonie (★★★★★) - concert review
  • Finding an identity in classical music: composer Shirley Thompson on her career and recent projects - interview
  • Unwrapping Venus: the music of Barbara Strozzi at Kings Place (★★★★½) - concert review
  • Oper Köln delivers a colourful account of Ralph Benatsky? & Robert Stolz’ The White Horse Inn (★★★★) - operetta review 
  • A year at Lincoln: Aric Prentice and the choir of Lincoln Cathedral on Regent Records (★★★) - Cd review
  • Home

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