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Pianists and Vampires 

Orchestral Reductions: Igor Levit's Tristan, and Beethoven for Three from Ax, Kavakos and Ma

Copper Magazine, issue 175, November 2022

Listen to audio narration here (11 mins)

Tristan, Igor Levit (Sony, 2022)

EVEN AS THEY SURVEY the widest solo repertoire of all, pianists are always stealing material written for others. They’re not happy with their two bravura Brahms concertos that work both as virtuoso showpieces and on a symphonic scale; they want to play the Brahms Violin Concerto in transcription and pretend they can hold a note as beautifully as any fiddler (pianist Dejan Lazic dared to record his version as “Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 3” (!) after Violin Concerto, Op. 77). Franz Liszt turned all of Beethoven’s symphonies into two- and four-hand piano transcriptions for the sheer joy of playing this music as recreation. As pianos became a piece of furniture throughout the 19th century, before radio and television, it signaled both educated status and a familial orientation.

Igor Levit, the gifted Russian-German pianist who delighted his audience with live Twitter house-concerts during the Covid pandemic back in March of 2020, devotes his latest recording to orchestral transcriptions, including the famous Prelude to Act I [not III] of Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, and the Adagio from Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 10 (arranged by Ronald Stevenson). These count as unusually ambitious selections even from this unusually ambitious pianist, centered around a new work, Hans Werner-Henze’s fantasy on Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, for orchestra and tape. (Henze’s passionately allusive piece with string and tapes includes an Ivesian interruption with Brahms’s First Symphony, accompanied by birds.) Levit bookends all this with glittering Franz Liszt displays (Liebestraum No. 3 in A-Flat Major, S. 541/3, and the 11th “Harmonies du soir” from Études d’exécution transcendante, S 139). Liszt, of course, ranks as the virtuoso’s best friend, and patron saint of the pianist as vampire.

Tristan und Isolde: Prelude (Arr. for Solo Piano by Zoltán Kocsis)
The Tristan Prelude, arranged by the great Hungarian pianist and composer Zoltán Kocsis (1952 – 2016), accomplishes what most transcribers chase: to give the pianist more mountains to climb, and make you hear this most gargantuan music in miniature. Reducing this such exuberant orchestration into 10 fingers on a piano, you listen to Wagner less as an orchestrator and colorist than as a mood-meister; the music’s effects rely less on timbre than voicing. Levit has superior control for this, and although pianos simply don’t sustain sounds as well as wind instruments, the spareness on this recording reveals an underlying fragility, and a new layer of self-consciousness.

In Levit’s version, the composer’s struggle itself gets laid bare, Wagner’s reach falling short of his grasp in the most expressive manner. The harmonies, which at the time sounded so radical that Wagner “broke tonality’s back” (in the music theorist’s maxim), have bloomed into Romanticism’s own dilemma, the very ineffability of putting emotions into sound. The playing is so spartan, so detailed, you almost wish Levit would release a draft without any pedaling, just to hear that much more closely how much coloration depends on the fog of sustain...

—Read the full article in Copper Magazine
Beethoven for Three, Symphonies Nos. 2 and 5, Emmanuel Ax, Leonidas Kavakos and Yo-Yo Ma (Sony, 2022)

Another example of how arrangements warp familiar symphonic repertoire gets a scrimmage from a superstar trio: Emanuel Ax, Leonidas Kavakos, and Yo-Yo Ma. In 2017, this troupe turned into a fine set of the Brahms Piano Trios, with thick vibrato and sweeping dramatic gestures that gave this chamber music symphonic proportions. Of course, it had polish to spare and at some points sounded effortless, which was part of the point: three virtuosos breezing their way through Olympian hurdles. But overall, it seized such bravura and daring it counted as irresistible.

This new recording shrinks two Beethoven symphonies down to three parts, crystallizing larger flourishes into compact gestures. Groups like the Beaux Arts Trio or the Emerson String Quartet spend decades working on their blend, so when celebrity soloists take on this repertoire there’s some arrogance involved: “We can flat-out play the stuff you devote your careers to on command,” they seem to say, “and look, we sell more!”

But some of these superstar ensembles can teach you about the music’s challenges even when they don’t secure the same ensemble peaks. It’s like watching Shakespeare with a celebrity starring as Hamlet: how does the material itself play against fame?

—Read the full article in Copper Magazine
more on classical
Tristan, Igor Levit (Sony, 2022) [listen on Apple Music or Spotify]
Beethoven for Three, Symphonies Nos. 2 and 5, Emmanuel Ax, Leonidas Kavakos and Yo-Yo Ma (Sony, 2022) [listen on Apple Music or Spotify]
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