in: Reviews

January 15, 2010

Beethoven Arranged


This year is the 100th anniversary of the Community Music Center of Boston (CMCB). In celebration of its deep commitment to teaching music, and about music, to individuals of all ages and abilities, the Center has embarked on a series of five concerts with lectures replicating those in its first year (1910). Entitled “Beethoven Symphonies: Lecture/Concert,” all of them involve his symphonies arranged for one or two pianos, with one or two performers. In that earlier period, before the widespread use of recordings in teaching, one studied these works by playing them on the piano, sometimes in concert. Music libraries held these arranged editions of Beethoven (and Haydn and Mozart, and Brahms, etc.) symphonies (and string quartets and quintets, etc.) in multiple copies for classroom use, but these collections have long since been weeded. Alas, they are no longer available from their publishers, rarely reprinted, and nearly impossible to acquire because existing exemplars are so battered. So these concerts also celebrate sounds seldom currently heard, even in one’s own living room.

The concert I heard on Wednesday, January 14, at 6:30 p.m. in Allen Hall at the CMCB was Lecture/Concert No. 2, with lecturer Gregory Smith, a musicologist on the faculty of the New England Conservatory, pianist Virginia Eskin, for many years on the faculty at Northeastern University, and Stephen Yenger, Chairman of the Piano Department and Coordinator of Faculty and Guest Recitals at CMCB.

The two Beethoven symphonies they performed were No. 3, “Eroica,” op. 55 in E-flat major, in the transcription for two pianos by Otto Singer (1863-1931) published in the 1920s, and No. 4, op. 60, in B-flat major for piano solo, transcribed by Franz Liszt. Liszt himself made a distinction between his paraphrases and his transcriptions: the latter have been dubbed the “recordings” of the 19th century, because in them he made no use of the then standard, elaborate devices in piano writing, but rather was ingeniously able to solve the problems of translating the disposition of orchestral instruments to the piano.

Stephen Yenger introduced the concert, noting with a smile that the Boston Symphony Orchestra  had also chosen to present all of Beethoven’s Symphonies this year, so one could study them both ways. He also paid tribute to Eskin’s contributions to the work of the CMCB over the years. Greg Smith’s lectures were a charming combination of history and analysis, of reading and improvising, and of interacting with both the performers, who played examples and interjected comments, and also with the large but generally gray audience (no CMCB students) that filled the intimate hall.

The two pianos for the 3rd Symphony were placed side-by-side with keyboards in one line, and the lid was removed from the instrument closest to the audience (Piano I) so as not to block the sound from Piano II. But this sometimes made for imbalance, and the pianos were not always exactly in tune with each other, beating in dissonance as a phrase faded away. Virginia Eskin has long been known for her recordings of American women composer’s music, particularly that of Mrs. H. H. A. Beach, beginning in 1975, and also for her virtuoso strength and stamina, amply demonstrated here in both works. She wasn’t always note-perfect, mentioning difficulty seeing the page, but she certainly improvised imperceptibly in the appropriate style on those occasions. Yenger provided effective and warm support in the Piano II part. In general there was too much pedal, no doubt an instinctive strategy to suggest full orchestral sound. In the 4th Symphony, which Eskin performed on Piano II, she was able to make beautiful pianissimo phrases in the solo transcription that were well worth coming for. It is almost impossible to achieve this on two pianos because of the percussive nature of the instrument, and tuning difficulties. Altogether it was a gemütlich occasion with an appreciative audience.

The remaining concerts in the series will occur on February 11 (nos. 5 and 6), March 11 (nos. 7 and 8) and April 8 (no. 9). Details are here.

Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area.

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