Transcription is an art as old as music. Technically, the word transcription embodies a root referring to writing (scribere in Latin); therefore, one cannot speak of transcription proper before the advent of musical notation. But, in practice, not only does transcription predate musical notation, but it also constitutes an element beyond notation, so to speak.
Prior to musical notation, in fact, transcription came easily and spontaneously to the musicians. It was very straightforward, for a musician, to conceive of a tune as played by different sound media. What could be played on a flute could also be played on a string instrument, and vice-versa; one only needed to adapt the tune to the instrument’s range, pitch, and structural qualities.
Indeed, even after the establishment of musical notation, transcription continued to represent just a performance mode, rather than an art in itself. The beginnings of “cultivated” instrumental music in the Western countries are frequently ascribed to the practice of spontaneously “transcribing” (without actually writing anything) vocal works for playing on musical instruments, such as the viol consort in the English area, or, most typically, for the lute. Mixtures of voices and instruments were also possible, and the practice of accompanied monody, which would be crucial for the development of the continuo technique and of tonality, came about from the habit of having a solo singer singing the top part of a polyphonic work, accompanied by instruments playing the lower parts.
To this end, the presence of keyboard instruments was particularly useful. Among the polyphonic instruments, those with keyboard are easiest to play, and allow therefore the performer to sustain a complex polyphonic texture without excessive effort. Already in the sixteenth century, it was frequently recommended that the faithful (and especially girls and young ladies) play on their instruments (such as the spinet or clavichord) the transcriptions of chorale harmonizations or harmonized Genevan Psalms. This activity united a religious practice with an artistic task, thus combining the holy with the beautiful.
The possibility of transferring a complex kind of music onto a single keyboard became increasingly attractive, for a number of purposes. Music students, and in particular perspective composers, could get acquainted with symphonic and choral literature, as these genres emerged, even when these large-scale works were not performed in public venues. Singers could learn their part with piano accompaniment before the rehearsals at theatre. Music lovers could play the tunes and pieces they had loved to hear in concerts and operas, even when the work’s performances had reached exhaustion. Frequently, and particularly for the pleasure of music lovers and amateurs, these kinds of transcriptions took the form of paraphrases, fantasies or potpourris rather than of mere transcriptions; variations could also be appended to successful themes, normally excerpted from acclaimed operas.
In general, transcription accepts, welcomes, and also actively employs the resources offered by timbre. Obviously, no transcription maintains the timbral features of the original; however, it can either attempt to imitate them on the new sound medium, or else deliberately take a stance against them, with the purpose of demonstrating the original work’s flexibility and its adaptability to new sound media. In some cases, the organic to be employed was not even specified, as happens with some late contrapuntal works by J. S. Bach, whereby the structural aspect so overwhelms the timbral dimension as to make it almost superfluous.
Especially in the nineteenth century, however, the phenomenon of instrumental virtuosity acquired a new predominance, and transcription offered a welcome venue to the composers’ and to the performers’ efforts. While great composers frequently created transcriptions (a classical example is Franz Liszt), one needs not to be a great composer in order to be a good transcriber; thus, transcriptions became the domain of virtuosos in need of new music to present to their audience, but who wisely wanted to milk the success of popular works without having to create new pieces of their own.
It was Liszt, however, as briefly mentioned earlier, who brought the art of transcription to new levels, particularly thanks to the extraordinary innovations he contributed to piano technique, and to his exceptional knowledge of the timbral effects one could obtain on the piano. Busoni would follow in his footsteps, leaving to posterity one of the most comprehensive discussions of the art of transcription for the piano. But Rachmaninov had perfectly grasped the meaning and the technique of transcription, and this Da Vinci Classics album fully demonstrates it.
Pietro Beltrani © 2022
For a pianist, transcription is always a difficult as much as an enthralling task. One needs, in fact, to give a new characterization to a pre-existing piece, without distorting its original meaning, but rather adding musical and expressive value.
Under this viewpoint, Rachmaninov’s task is perfectly realized: his transcriptions (after other composers, but also after his own works) are built by observing the prescriptions regarding the original composers’ intentions, but also always overcome them from the technical, harmonic and expressive viewpoint.
They were all written during the composer’s “American” years. They coincide, for the Russian composer, with a period (the Twenties and Thirties) which was open to the re-elaborations of the classics (we may mention the Variations on a theme by Corelli and the Rhapsody on a theme by Paganini). In some cases it would be more opportune to speak of arrangements, since there is never a mere mechanical transliteration of the notes on the piano. On the contrary, there is always a very complex elaboration, whereby Rachmaninov’s own style is always perceived, even in repertoires one might consider as distant from his own – such as J. S. Bach. In his transcription after Violin Partita BWV 1006, Rachmaninov employs a wide-ranging counterpoint, which respects the original scoring, but also adds harmonies, colours and dazzling chords which make the piano writing shine. Initially, Rachmaninov published just the Prelude, while the Gavotte and Gigue would be issued later.
His transcription after the Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Mendelssohn is finely crafted. The extremely high performing difficulty of this piece, which is almost anti-pianistic, discourage even the young virtuosos from facing it, both in the recording studio and before an audience, thus making it a seldom-performed work.
The transcriptions after Kreisler are very impressive; Kreisler was Rachmaninov’s constant duo partner in his American years. Rachmaninov worked on two of the three Viennese dances for Violin and Piano (Liebesleid and Liebesfreud), turning them into two pieces with a powerfully virtuoso intention and varied sound effects, with an intense use of chromaticism together with a magniloquent lyricism.
The transcriptions after his own vocal works (Lilacs, from his 12 Romances op. 21, and Daisies, from his 6 Romances op. 38) are more dreamlike. Daisies in particular is strongly influenced by the American “sound”. This reveals that Rachmaninov did not consider the contemporaneous United States just as a host country, but rather was actively living the musical panorama of his time.
His transcriptions after Russian composers such as Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov are always thrilling. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee is one of the most famous pieces of all times within the classical repertoire; it has been transcribed for all kinds of instruments and is still very frequently employed by modern virtuosos as an encore.
Tchaikovsky’s Romance op. 16 is dramatically expressive, by way of contrast; this transcription is Rachmaninov’s last work (1941).
The Polka of W. R. derives its name from being the composer’s father’s favourite piece. Wassily Rachmaninov always listened to it at the radio. This transcription is dedicated to L. Godowsky. It is the transcription after the “Scherzpolka” Lachtäubechen op. 303 by Franz Behr. Rachmaninov, however, did not mention the original composer in his manuscript, probably because he ignored the piece’s paternity. Until the end of the twentieth century, therefore, it was a common assumption that the piece was original by Rachmaninov.
As concerns the American National Anthem, no score by the composer survives; therefore, the version played in this album is derived from a transcription after a piano roll where Rachmaninov himself played it.
In the years when he lived in the US, in fact, it was compulsory to play the Anthem before every concert. Rachmaninov was very careful to faithfully respect the piece’s chordal texture. Perhaps he was remembering the high fine Stravinsky had to pay for having added to his transcription of the anthem a dominant-seventh-chord, which raised many brows in the audience.
The specific trait of all these transcriptions is that they were all recorded, in the years, by their composer, who left us a valuable testimony of his unsurpassed pianism. One should note that the recorded versions differ in some passages from the definitive version, officially published. We know in fact that the manuscripts for some of them have been lost. On the other hand, some of them (such as the Minuet from Bizet’s L’Arlésienne, or the Flight of the Bumblebee) were later revised by the composer himself. The performances included in this album refer philologically to the composer’s performances.
Beyond these transcriptions, the album also contains two further pieces: one is the Humoresque derived from Morceaux de Salon op. 10, in its first version (1894), recorded in turn by the composer; the other, closing the collection, is one of the most iconic works in Rachmaninov’s entire output, i.e. the Prelude op. 23 no. 4.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2022
Pietro Beltrani: Pietro Beltrani was born in 1989 and he studied piano with Mº Giorgio Farina.
After the graduation with honours at “G.Rossini” Conservatory in Pesaro (Italy), he studied at the prestigious Piano Academy “Incontri col Maestro” in Imola (Italy) with Mº Franco Scala and Mº Piero Rattalino. He’s been awarded in many national and international competitions. He played in the most important Italian halls and theatres, like Teatro “La Fenice” di Venezia, Parco della Musica in Rome, Teatro Comunale in Florence, Teatro Manzoni in Bologna, Sala “Puccini” of the Milan Conservatory, Teatro Vittoria in Turin. He took part in the best Italian Festivals, like MiTo, Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Bologna Festival, Emilia-Romagna Festival. He made his debut in some prestigious international halls, like Tbilisi State Conservatory Recital Hall (Georgia) and Carnegie Hall (New York,USA). In 2019 he made his debut with Rachmaninov Concerto n. 3 in Bologna at Teatro Manzoni.
Sergey Rachmaninov: (b Oneg, 20 March/1 April 1873; d Beverly Hills, CA, 28 March 1943). Russian composer, pianist and conductor. He was one of the finest pianists of his day and, as a composer, the last great representative of Russian late Romanticism. The influences of Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and other Russian composers soon gave way to a thoroughly personal idiom, with a pronounced lyrical quality, expressive breadth, structural ingenuity and a palette of rich, distinctive orchestral colours.