The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: We should hear more chamber music versions of symphonies and concertos, The Ear says after hearing Harvard scholar Robert Levin perform Mozart.

August 31, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

Don’t misunderstand me: I love concertos of all kinds and particularly piano concertos.

There is something deeply appealing and satisfying about hearing a gifted soloist go head-to-head with a big symphony orchestra. It is an exciting experience, whether they are playing in unison, on parallel tracks, dialoging back and forth or even doing direct battle with each other for dominance.

But one of the lessons of the Token Creek Festival, both this summer and in past summers, is that there are other alternative ways to hear concertos – ways that may even be more informing and insightful than the usual way.

On Sunday afternoon, I heard Harvard scholar and keyboard master Robert Levin and five string players (below) perform a chamber music reduction or arrangement (with winds omitted) of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 26 in D Major, the so-called “Coronation” Concerto (K. 537).

Levin improvised cadenzas in all three movements and on the program’s first half he also performed a fine reconstruction he has updated and redone of a unfinished and originally disjointed piano trio (K. 442) by Mozart, below. (Here is a link to a review of the full concert by John W. Barker of Isthmus:

Last summer Levin scored a big success with a similar arrangement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4. And earlier this summer, I heard the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society perform a similar arrangement, made by the 18th century impresario Solomon, of a late Haydn symphony.

Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven – those are some pretty heavy-weight composers, the most pedigree musicians of the pivotal Classical era.

So these special arrangements are not mere vanity versions or exercises.

They were made, according to Levin (below), for practical reasons. They could be performed for a lot less money – after all,  professional symphony orchestras didn’t even exist until the mid-19th century — and they could be done in royal courts and even private homes. Their scale was “do-able” and they helped spread classical music, which we sure need these days. They proved accessible to performers and listeners alike — and still do.

But beyond the physical and financial practicalities of these arrangements and reductions, you can also add an esthetic appeal. You get to hear these concertos with a certain intimacy and transparency that are very listener-friendly. In fact, you get to hear the parts and the interplay of the various instruments and the soloists even more vividly. That’s something that chamber orchestras start to do but these arrangements take you even further.

In fact, they are also great rehearsals for hearing the greatest of piano trios, quartets and quintets by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Dvorak, Faure, Debussy, Ravel, Shostakovich and so many others.

Just listen this particular snippet, only 95 seconds long, of Levin and the Token Creek string quintet that back him up in the “Coronation” Concerto.

Given the budget constraints of so many classical music organizations these days, these chamber versions seem even more viable and desirable than they ordinarily might.

The same applies to recording them: I am absolutely certain it is cheaper to perform and record these versions that the full-scale versions. Curiously, however, I know of only a couple such recordings, including one by pianist Alfred Brendel (below) made of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A Major, K. 414, with the Alban Berg String Quartet. (Maybe readers can inform me about others.)

Why doesn’t some enterprising small CD label do Mozart’s full cycle of such chamber music arrangements of his piano concertos?

Such works even seem a natural project in an era that is exploring early music, period instruments and historical performance practices.

So why not record some of the other versions of Haydn symphonies and Beethoven concertos?

There may even be a lot more of these works. I can’t find a reliable source of the grand total of such arrangements – so I hope readers can again help me. But I bet it’s pretty big, given that they were made before there were big professional symphony orchestras and before home had radios, TVs and record, tape or CD players to bring classical music into home life.

Anyway, this Mozart concert by Robert Levin helped scholarship spill over into real life – which is part of what a good concert should do, no?

Do you know these chamber music arrangements of piano concertos or other concertos?

What do you think of them?

Would you like to hear more of them?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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