This is a fascinating disk. You won’t find such a collection anywhere else.
Many great works have been arranged over the centuries for piano, four-hand piano, or two pianos: Beethoven and Haydn Symphonies, Brahms’s chamber music, Mozart, Bach, Vivaldi, and the list goes on. Many pieces here are for four hands and some are for two pianos. This is the first time for a release such as this.
The disc is historically informative and a must for fans of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century “novelties”. Included are faithful transcriptions which only occasionally cross the line into arrangement. Sometimes they show ingenuity in one composer’s view of another’s oeuvre. At other times, a Schubert work serves as a platform for showcasing someone else’s talent at the keyboard.
The “Trout” Quintet in A major (D. 667) is the centre-piece, with the Rosamunde Overture running a close second. In this recording of the Trout are contained the views of arranger Joseph Czerný (1785-1831), the composer Schubert, and of the performers. This four-hand-arrangement was published by Czerný alongside the Quintet just a few months after Schubert’s death. Perhaps a bit of good business sense led Czerný to capitalize on what he expected would be a best seller. As the Quintet wraps itself around Schubert’s beautiful and very popular song it probably could not have failed in any form. Although this Quintet transcription is mostly faithful note-for-note, some voicing choices were clearly made by Czerný. Sometimes a bass line is doubled; sometimes a tenor line is brought to the stratosphere for clearer hearing. Sometimes there are weaknesses in the arranging. Take the second movement, for instance. A substantial use of the pedal makes it easier to sustain string passages in this slow movement, but is not of assistance in cadential measures, where a piano simply cannot do the job of a bow pulled slowly and richly across a stringed instrument. The opening tempo of the actual Trout song, the third movement, should really be treated as if it were a song. As such one should consider the words to the original tune, as Schubert would have when settling on a tempo for performance of this Quintet movement. This recording takes the theme much too fast to enjoy the thought (though unspoken and unsung) behind the song. Yes, it should, and does, move ahead at the variations, and slows down some, as is traditionally done, for the cello solo variation. Somewhere between this cello movement tempo and what Goldstone and Clemmow chose for their opening tempo would have been a better idea. The last movement, although as exciting as the original, has two spots, actually the same passage twice, missing a key element in the treble line, played by the violin in the original. After listening a couple of times to these passages, I realized finally that the omission was probably due to the over-employment of every available finger at the task; simply, not enough fingers to play the passage the way Czerný arranged it. It might have been more musically tasteful had Czerný sacrificed a few notes in an inner part in order to preserve the Schubertian aspects of this passage.
Generally, though, one is not aware that Czerný’s work is an arrangement, as many passages in Schubert’s original Quintet are heavy on piano anyway and thus change very little in the arranging. Czerný probably could have gone a bit further in his A-major arpeggios upward — after all, there are 88 keys to a piano. There are the issues of bringing out inner voices, when left intact by Czerný, in their original register. It is then up to the performers to bring out a line that would have been at the foreground in a good chamber music performance — the other players in that case would have toned down their appearance in order to let an inner instrument like the viola or second violin come through. I know this can be done on the piano, I’m just not sure that this recording demonstrates that. In order to pull off an arrangement like this, one needs to know the score — the original score, and to imagine oneself as a string player. Nor am I sure that Schubert, had he lived a longer life, felt the need to arrange the Quintet for four hands.
The Adagio from String Quintet in C major (D. 956), the two-cello quintet, here transcribed for piano duet by Hugo Ulrich (1827-1872), suffers from the same dilemma as the slow movement of the Trout. Here once again is a work requiring an incredible amount of control from every member of the string-playing original, thereby putting any two pianists at a disadvantage at the onset. Pizzicatos in the second cello part just do not translate well to a pianist’s hand in that the line becomes bumpy and static, with any resonance falling far from the reverberation in any capable cellist’s hands. This lack of floating or soaring line throughout all the voices deeply inhibits Schubert’s beautiful writing. This is no fault of the performers, especially if they were following to the note all the articulations (or lack thereof) in this transcription, which in turn leads us to question whether or not Ulrich’s faithful transcription would have fared better had it been more arranged, rather than less so.
One of the more interesting works on this disk is some of Schubert’s Waltzes arranged for two pianos, circa 1920, by a still-young Sergei Prokofiev. They of course sound very Russian, very full and sometimes very Prokofiev-like. This is one of the arrangements on the disk that’s farther from the original than Schubert might have been able to tolerate, not that it mocks the original in any way. This is a successful and entertaining exercise in stretching one’s compositional wings.
At least one of the works on this disk is an example of hubris on the part of the arranger — ‘Don’t Fix What Ain’t Broke’, some might say. Some of the works suffer from their being arranged at all. Others, like the indestructible Rosamunde, arranged by Josef Hüttenbrenner (1796-1882), would be delightful to hear even for an orchestra of kazoos. You can’t kill a good piece of music with a bad arrangement, though even good composers have weak spots, and great ones a few. This distilling of music down to four hands, twenty fingers, works most of the time.
The work arranged by Anthony Goldstone, Polonaise in B flat major (from the D. 618a sketches), sounds more faithful to an original, an unfinished work at the time of Schubert’s death. Here, there is no apparent notational interpretation, or liberties taken, and it as faithful to an original idea as possible. That’s our taste today. Had this been finished in the 19 th century or early twentieth, it would have been another story. Which is the case with the Study for two pianos by Ede Poldini (1869-1957) from Schubert’s Impromptu in E flat major, D. 899, no. 2. It’s a vehicle for pyrotechnical keyboard displays, and sounds a bit dated. That’s what can happen when one strays too far from Schubert. The liner notes are important, fixing time, place and sometimes reason, and are historically helpful.