"Transfigured Beethoven" - eight piano arrangements
of music by Beethoven including Raff's Transcription of the Romance for Violin & Orchestra No.1 op.40
Petronel Malan, piano
Hänssler Classic CD 98.286 2008 DDD 78:32
For most of his career Raff arranged, transcribed and produced fantasies on the music of other composers. He did it out of necessity, simply to keep the wolf from the door. Turning his prodigious compositional talent to the production of such works did his status as a serious composer little good even during his lifetime and, once he was safely dead, it was a significant factor in engineering the profound collapse of his posthumous reputation. Yet, in common with the many pieces of lighter original piano music which he churned out for the salon and parlour in his journeyman years, he brought to all these arrangements of other composers' works the same skill and thoughtfulness demonstrated by his major compositions.
In her earlier CD, Transfigured Mozart [review], South African virtuoso Petronel Malan brought us a significant work from Raff's early years: his Reminiscences of Don Juan op.45. This showed off Raff's ability to take three disparate episodes from a sizeable opera and blend them into a coherent and satisfying whole whilst at the same time giving a good overall impression of Don Juan and affording the pianist plenty of opportunity for virtuoso playing. It's fair to say that Malan made the most of the opportunity which Raff presented. In that work, and on the earlier disc as a whole, she displayed both a formidable technique and a poetic sensibility which was quite beguiling. The prospect of a further CD featuring another of Raff's arrangements is therefore an exciting one.
Raff wrote his arrangements for piano of Beethoven's two Romances for violin and orchestra in 1849, just before he joined Liszt's household in Weimar. Although they were published immediately, Raff didn't allocate them an opus number. Unlike the freely composed fantasia of the Don Juan piece, here Raff restricts himself to a bar by bar transcription of Beethoven's Romance. The artistry here is in transferring the sustained legatos of the violin line and the sonority of the orchestra accompaniment to the very limited medium of the piano. This Raff manages with his usual skill. The transcription remains true to the essentially classical nature of the original, whilst at the same time having a character of its own. Hearing this work without knowing its genesis, I doubt that one would guess that it was a transcription at all, so natural is Raff's writing for the piano. There is nothing "reduced" or compromised about it.
Malan's playing here is very direct, almost matter of fact. That's not meant as a criticism: it's clearly not an easy piece to play (is anything by Raff?) but the original communicates directly with the listener and so does Raff's transcription. Compared with the great majority of recordings of the original, she takes things quickly. Most performances take between seven and eight minutes, whereas Malan needs less than six, but this too seems a natural function of the transcription itself. Whilst the violin original has a dreamy, rhapsodic atmosphere, the transfer to piano has leant it more urgency and playfulness, which Malan captures perfectly. This is hardly a major Raff discovery but one couldn't wish for a more persuasive performance and it's a great shame that, try as she may, Malan couldn't track down a copy of Raff's transcription of the other Romance to record both, as she had originally intended.
The rest of the disc gives more proof of Petronel Malan's virtuosity and range. The arrangement by Sgambati of the Minuet from the String Trio op.3 is charming, Seiss' "free transcription" of the 12 German Dances is unpretentiously rumbustious, and the Fantasia by Kalkbrenner on the Sehnsucht Waltz is full of dizzying pyrotechnics, if otherwise empty. The real meat on the CD comes from four string quartet transcriptions by Tausig and a set of 31 Variations by Heller. Malan excels in the phenomenally difficult Tausig works. She revels in the demands of these transcriptions which maintain the four distinct voices of the original pieces. Her skill is more than commendable: it is astonishing. At 17 minutes, Stephen Heller's Variations on a Theme by Beethoven are both longer than his usual miniatures and more dramatic. The shadow of Schumann, never far away, robs Heller of an independent voice but this is satisfying music.
The insert notes by Malan herself are lucid and informative and the sound is excellent. In short, although only six of its 78 minutes of music by Raff, this is a thoroughly recommendable recording.
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