Mix of the month, November

The art of the arranger is, perhaps, under-appreciated. There are copious examples of the most famous composers having engaged in making arrangements of both their own and others’ works. Before the era of recordings, making arrangements was the only way you could practically communicate the essence of a composition, especially a symphonic work, to a wider audience. My music tutor at university recounted how, as a young student himself, he had got to know Beethoven’s symphonies through performing them in arrangements for piano duet. I myself was playing Haydn’s symphonies in similar arrangements long before the Naxos catalogue made the learning curve much easier.

I thought we could take a look and a listen, therefore, to a selection of six of this month’s new releases that are products of the arranger’s art. With next year marking the 250th anniversary of his birth, Beethoven is represented in half of the selected items.

Beethoven’s relationship with his contemporary Johann Nepomuk Hummel got off to a rocky start in terms of mutual artistic respect. Hummel was Beethoven’s rival in romance as well; both musicians were in love with the same woman, the singer Elisabeth Röckel. Hummel triumphed “because he had an appointment and had not the misfortune of being hard of hearing”.

Despite this fractious background, Hummel was clear about who was the greater composer. His student Ferdinand Hiller once asked his teacher why he did not write music in a similar fashion to Beethoven. Hummel is said to have replied: “How could I follow in the footsteps of such a genius?”

Between 1825 and 1835 (Beethoven died in 1827) Hummel arranged Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 1-7 and the Septet, Op. 20 for his favoured combination of piano, flute, violin and cello. Beethoven would surely not have objected—arrangements were, after all, a perfectly normal part of the 19th-century musical landscape. To audiences today his symphonies need little introduction but, thanks to the musical sensitivity and sheer brilliance of Hummel’s arrangements, it’s possible to experience the thrill of hearing these extraordinary pieces afresh.

Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3 make up the programme on this new release. Here’s the finale of the First Symphony.

Symphony No. 1 (8.574039)


We advance a little further into the 19th century now and to the Lachner family from Upper Bavaria. It was a musical family, specifically with respect to the three brothers Franz Paul (1803-1890), Ignaz (1807-1895) and Vinzenz (1811-1893), whose original works have so far been widely ignored.

In Central Europe during the first half of the 19th century, the piano became an important instrument in bourgeois households because people wanted to listen to the great musical masterpieces. The fact that orchestral works could hardly be performed in the small rooms of their homes resulted in a growing demand for piano concertos to be arranged for chamber music instrumentation. Chamber music arrangements with piano became a major field of activity for arranger-composers to ensure a wider distribution of famous works. And we should bear in mind that Beethoven himself also wrote chamber music versions of his orchestral works in order to make them more widely known. One example is the Symphony No. 2 which the composer arranged for piano trio.

And so to the recording of Vinzenz Lachner’s arrangement of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos Nos. 3 and 4 for piano and string quintet. I’ve chosen the rondo finale of the Third Piano Concerto to give a taste of Lachner’s transcription technique.

Piano Concerto No. 3 (8.551400)


Beethoven could hardly have imagined that the cello part of his Serenata Op. 8 would come to be played on a guitar instead of the original instrument. When the Viennese music publisher Artaria announced the newly printed edition of the Serenata in the Wiener Zeitung on 7 October 1797, the guitar had not yet reached the peak of its popularity in the imperial capital. When the Czech composer and guitarist Wenzel Matiegka settled in Vienna in 1800, he soon came to know Beethoven’s Serenata for string trio, since it was one of the most popular pieces of chamber music that the master from Bonn had written so far.

Matiegka went on to publish an arrangement of Beethoven’s 7-movement Serenata, replacing the original cello by the guitar. This he did quite cleverly, filling out the single lines of the string instrument with the full chords of the guitar, taking advantage of the latter’s sounds where pizzicato was demanded, and giving the guitar more solo lines and more embellishments than Beethoven had written for the cello. Let’s hear the central movement, a bustling scherzo that alternates with a sombre counterpart.

Serenata (8.551409)


Now for three 21st-century arrangements, the first of which is a transformation of Tchaikovsky’s orchestral score for his ballet The Nutcracker into a brass septet version prepared and performed here by the ensemble Septura. I’ve chosen the Waltz of the Flowers from Act II to showcase the amazing skills exhibited both by Septura’s arrangement and its performance.

Waltz of the Flowers (8.574157)


The term arrangement can be used only loosely to describe the next extract which required major reconstruction in its initial stages of preparation. I’m referring to film music by Dmitry Shostakovich. Many of his scores have been given a new lease of life by the British conductor Mark Fitz-Gerald, who describes the challenge of resuscitating Shostakovich’s music for the film Love and Hate:

“Shostakovich’s 1935 manuscript full score of this work could not be found. The composer was always meticulous about keeping all his manuscript scores in order and in a safe place. This must be a rare case of a score not surviving the siege of Leningrad.

The film contains 23 sections of music. Only eight sections were found by DSCH Publishers, Moscow in a rough piano sketch form (with only limited information). These are clearly in the composer’s handwriting, mostly on two staves, and some only on one stave.

‘How Long Will My Heart Ache and Moan?’ was the only piece to be found already in print, and contained only two markings: moderato and mp. The remaining 14 sections all had to be taken down by ear from the old and rickety 1935 soundtrack … and the pitch on this soundtrack is often unstable.”

Here are two examples from his remarkable labour of love: first, an interlude enigmatically titled A Team of Women, followed by Soldiers’ March for male chorus and slightly manic organ accompaniment.

Team of Women (8.574100)

Soldiers’ March (8.574100)


Finally, an adaptation that is more an example of cohabitation than the idea of arrangement with which we began this blog. Peter Breiner’s Beatles Go Baroque was released in 1992 and its feast of engaging arrangements of Beatles favourites in the style of a long-gone era was an immediate hit. The recording went on to be a multi-platinum success.

Returning for a second volume, which is among this month’s releases, Breiner did not want to simply repeat the original album’s idea of taking Beatles tunes and cloaking them in Baroque garb, with J. S. Bach, Handel and Vivaldi as stylistic templates. This time, he was determined to match The Beatles’ compositions to beloved works by Bach and movements from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, and to keep the Baroque originals largely intact. Thus The Beatles, Bach and Vivaldi move in and out of the spotlight, in the spirit of a true 21st-century mash-up.

Let’s end, then, with the finale from Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 getting really quite intimate with Paul McCartney’s Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.

A 21st-century mash-up (8.574078)


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