Franz Liszt (1811 - 1886)
Franz Liszt was a visionary, pioneering composer of extraordinary range, versatility and imagination. He was also widely regarded as the preeminent pianist of the nineteenth century. Clearly, no one was better positioned than he to perfect the solo piano transcription, a genre that grew naturally out of advances in virtuoso piano technique. Thanks to his prodigious gifts as both pianist and composer, Liszt’s arrangements of vocal, operatic and orchestral works remain unrivaled to this day.
It is easy to assume that Liszt’s interest in transcriptions was purely self-serving. True, they offered an ideal showcase for his peerless technical skills at the keyboard. It made for grand entertainment when he would transform a popular Schubert song, for example, into a high-wire act for solo piano. Liszt knew well how to stun and enthrall his listeners. But self-promotion wasn’t the only motive. Liszt was uncommonly generous, and throughout his life he campaigned tirelessly for the composers he admired. By appropriating their works he considered himself to be doing them a great favor. Indeed, many (Donizetti, Meyerbeer and Wagner, to name a few) did count themselves lucky when Liszt would swoop down, talons outstretched, on their progeny. A transcription by Liszt, particularly when he himself performed it, could draw considerable attention to a work that might have been otherwise overlooked or dismissed.
Art songs figured prominently among the works Liszt transcribed. Along with the 55 arrangements of Schubert lieder—over one third of his total song transcription output— he arranged songs by Beethoven, Chopin, Mendelssohn and Schumann, as well as many lesser composers. Recasting a vocal line for piano came naturally to Liszt, with his particular gift for creating cantabile effects at the keyboard. But when the human voice was removed from the fabric, so was the text—an even greater loss in Liszt’s view. He recognized that poetry was the original inspiration for the music, and saw the marriage of the two as vital to the essence of a song. Thus he asked publishers to print the lyrics plainly above the melody throughout the scores of his transcriptions.
The poetry also served to inspire Liszt in the process of arranging. He usually took care to tailor the embellishing material to suit its mood and meaning. For example, he set the stage brilliantly for the adventures of a fish in the opening of his arrangement of Schubert’s “Die Forelle” (The Trout). The “wriggling fish” motive, taken from Schubert’s accompaniment, ascends over the range of several octaves, followed by a cascade of rapidly descending passagework. Following this introduction, the motive darts playfully about until the third statement of the tune, where it is supplanted by treacherous broken octave jumps that set the right hand leaping—fishlike—about the keyboard. As the trials of the fish escalate, so do those of the pianist.
Although Liszt nearly always enriched the texture of a song, he would retain original accompaniment figures when they proved too useful, too important or too lovely to alter. In his exquisite arrangement of Schubert’s “Liebesbotschaft” (Love’s Message), he simply incorporated the vocal melody into Schubert’s own piano part, whose lively churning and bubbling suggest the brook in the poem. This poses challenge enough for the player, especially during the reprise, where Liszt set the melody for the right hand in tenths. In his transcription of Schumann’s “Frühlingsnacht” (Spring Night), Liszt largely preserved the original accompaniment of incessant repeated chords, adding only trills, tremolos and a few arpeggios. But Liszt’s alchemy is so potent that even these relatively minor changes drastically heighten the sense of ecstasy and feverish agitation of the original.
The overall level of artistry Liszt achieved in the song transcriptions is remarkably high, but even among so many gems, the arrangement of Schumann’s “Widmung” (Dedication) stands out as a masterpiece. Its genius lies in Liszt’s sensitive pacing, for he gauged the rising stages of passion with a flawless sense of proportion and drama. The piece begins without a hint of bombast, the melody placed simply in bold relief. The mood of the middle section becomes more intimate, even prayer like—here again Liszt wisely refrained from any adornment. But in the reprise he unabashedly stoked the fire beneath the ardent lyrics: roiling arpeggios and then throbbing fortississimo chords drive up the temperature and lead inexorably to a glorious climax. Once again Liszt managed to tease out even greater resplendence from an already transcendently beautiful song.
Liszt used the song arrangement—with overwhelming success—as a vehicle for experiments in piano color. When transcribing symphonic and operatic works, however, he forged into an entirely new area: his aim was to make the piano sound truly orchestral. He surely realized that goal in his monumental arrangement of “Isoldens Liebestod,” the final scene from Wagner’s operaTristan und Isolde. While firmly resisting the allure of superficial pyrotechnics, Liszt conjured sustained string-effects and created large-scale crescendos by exploiting the extreme registers of the keyboard and drawing upon his stock arsenal of tremolos, arpeggios and repeated chords. In the end, he overcame the piano’s most vexing musical limitation—its inability to sustain a single note for long, much less create a crescendo on one—and opened the palette to colors that can only be described as symphonic. The piece shimmers, glows, and thunders with such grandeur and authenticity that the resources of an orchestra are scarcely missed.
In stark contrast, Liszt’s transcription of Beethoven’s song cycleAn die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved), Op. 98, is an exercise in ascetic discipline. Beethoven could inspire austerity in Liszt—here, as in his transcriptions of the nine symphonies, fidelity to the original governs the aesthetic. By simply allowing the sublime music to speak for itself and refraining from adding a single note of color or invention, Liszt effectively erased his own personality from the process. This transcription could have come just as easily from the pen of Beethoven himself.
Maurice Ravel(1875 - 1937)
Maurice Ravel’s solo piano arrangements ofLa Valse: Poème chorégraphique pour Orchestre and the ballet Daphnis et Chloé differ completely in nature and purpose from the piano transcriptions of Liszt. They exist only because Ravel first created solo piano versions of these symphonic works and then later orchestrated them. And while Liszt generally designed his transcriptions for public performance, it is doubtful that Ravel ever intended these somewhat “sketchy” arrangements to become part of the standard repertoire. In fact, with La Valse he lavished much more attention upon a two-piano version—no doubt finding four hands more suited to the demands of such complex orchestral textures.
Even so, the solo piano version ofLa Valse presents an intriguing, if sometimes seemingly insurmountable, challenge. Although much of it is set reasonably well upon two staves, in several extended sections Ravel used a third staff to house those orchestral lines that could not be easily accommodated by two hands already so heavily taxed. He could hardly have expected the pianist to incorporate the third staff as it is notated, but its material is, of course, essential. Without it, the work suffers a serious loss of color and contrapuntal interest. The only solution is for the pianist, somehow, to find a way to weave it into the texture. This task requires both thorough study of the orchestra score and a spirit of adventure in addressing the considerable technical challenges. As may be expected, realizations of the solo piano version are highly individual. But at its best, it rivals the two-piano arrangement and joins ranks with the other great solo piano works of Ravel.
The piano version ofDaphnis et Chloé is less suited to the concert stage by reason of its extreme length—nearly an hour. Presenting excerpts, however, solves that problem, and Ravel’s fresh and colorful writing makes the effort worthwhile. Here, too, the pianist can improve upon the occasionally too thinly textured arrangement by augmenting with material directly from the orchestra score.
On this recording, five consecutive dances from the first scene are grouped into a suite. The excerpt centers on a dance competition. According to Ravel’s stage directions the scene takes place in “a meadow at the edge of a sacred wood.... on a bright spring afternoon.” Youths and girls surround the principal characters: Daphnis, a young shepherd; Chloé, a young shepherdess; and Dorcon, a clumsy cowherd. Dorcon asks for a kiss from Chloé, which inflames jealousy in Daphnis. The surrounding group suggests that the two youths resolve their rivalry by holding a dance contest after which the winner will receive a kiss from Chloé. Dorcon inspires only laughter from the crowd with his “grotesque dance,” whereas Daphnis easily wins the competition with his “light and graceful dance.”
Producer, Recording Engineer, Mastering Engineer
Assistant Engineer, Editor
Kees Nab, interior
This recording was produced with generous support from
analog-to-digital converters by DCS in the UK.
It was recorded to a NAGRA-D portable digital recorder,
at 96kHz/24 bit, using Neumann M-149 tube microphones.
High Definition Compatible Digital®
MUV490 - 011
©2007 Musica Vera LLC