> PABST Opera and Ballet paraphrases [JF]: Classical Reviews- January 2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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Pavel PABST (1854-1807)
Opera and Ballet Paraphrases

Fantasie sur l’opéra "Mazeppa" (Tchaikovsky)
Paraphrase de concert sur l’opéra "Eugene Onegin" (Tchaikovsky)
Réminiscences de l’opéra "Le Demon" Grand Fantasie (Rubinstein)
Paraphrase de concert sur le ballet "La Belle au bois dormant" (Tchaikovsky)
Berceuse (Tchaikovsky Op.16 No.1)
Illustrations de l’opéra "La Dame Pique" (Tchaikovsky)
Oleg Marshev – Piano
Recorded at the Cultural Institute, Milan September 1996
DANACORD DACOCD450 [67.39]


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These fine paraphrases require the listener to exercise an historical understanding of the music. Now that is true for most composers and most compositions. However, there is an unfair bias against music that is not ‘original.’ Many people's faces still screw up when one mentions, for example, Franz Liszt’s piano transcriptions of Wagner. They think that somehow it is not good music because it has, as its basis the work of another composer. A brief review of the nature of arrangement and transcription in the 19th century may help us put both Liszt and Paul Pabst into context.

One of the major musical developments of the 1800s was the refinement of the forte piano or pianoforte. Here was an instrument, more than any other, that was capable of being played both in the concert hall and in the drawing room. It was accessible by most of the ‘middle class’ musically literate people of the age. Many amateur musicians could learn to play at least moderately well. It is fair to say that its range and tonal colouring were massive. Virtually any style of music could be played on it. Even orchestral instruments could be mimicked. (Of course the organ was the orchestra in a box – but was hardly portable!)

In the days when travel was less possible than now, when there were fewer provincial orchestras and culture tended to reside in the capital cities, it was not always feasible for music lovers to hear even the core repertoire. So countless arrangements were made of symphonies, suites and string quartets for piano solo or perhaps piano duet. We only need to look at the catalogue of music by Liszt to see that he transcribed, amongst other pieces, the Beethoven Symphonies, the Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz and Hummel’s Septet. There are many, many more. These could be presented in almost any venue. The works could become known to all.

Now of course the mid-nineteenth century was also the era of the Virtuosi Pianists - none more so than Liszt himself – although many others had a considerable following. It must always be remembered that Sigismund Thalberg was a serious rival to Franz in the salons of Paris. All this virtuosity brought with it a public desire for more and more complex and pianistic compositions. True they wanted to hear the less elaborate pieces of music too, but it was the transcriptions, arrangements and paraphrases, that had immense technical difficulty that really seemed to make or break a soloist. We need only think of Liszt’s Paraphrase on Verdi’s Rigoletto to see a prime example of what could be, and almost needed to be, achieved by the composer/pianists of the day.

It is important to try to define the difference between arrangement, paraphrase and transcription. Perhaps it is not so easy to do. Certainly an 'arrangement' seems straightforward enough - it is simply the music rewritten or re-scored for another instrument. But this then shades into 'transcription'. This is, perhaps, when the music is played around with to show off the instrument for which it is being transcribed. We need only think of Busoni/Bach to realise that elaboration of chords, arpeggios, octave doubling both in the bass and the treble clefs, involved figuration etc to realise that this is vital to this type of composition. Perhaps the form of the piece would remain the same. The basic order of musical events would not change. Of course an odd repeat may be missed out or some bars be suppressed, but basically it is the recognisably original piece or movement.

However, a 'paraphrase' implies something more than this. It is the taking of a composition, often a ballet or opera and using extracts to build a new composition. Often it will utilise all the best bits; the purple passages as it were. To this is applied all the mannerisms of the instrument mentioned above. Often harmonies are brought into line with contemporary practice. It is usually a free form - but often seems to be a version of modified sonata. It is a new creation; rather like a landscape gardener using pieces of old sculpture to create his new estate.

A brief look at the catalogues reveals a vast variety of paraphrases by a considerable number of composers. Moritz Moszkowski, Carl Tausig, Percy Grainger, Sigismund Thalberg, Louis Brassin and of course Paul Pabst all provided essays in this form. Wagner, Meyerbeer, Verdi and Offenbach were all ideal candidates for paraphrases on their operatic masterpieces. And in the days before stringent copyright laws, there were no legal implications.

There is comparably little information on the Paul Pabst. The entry in the New Grove is really only one elaborate paragraph. Searching the Internet does not give much additional help. And for once Danacord’s sleeve notes are of little assistance. Although they have a mini essay by Kim Sommerschield on the nature of ‘paraphrase’ there is little information on the composer or the pieces played. So a few words on the composer may not come amiss.

Paul Pabst was born in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) – in 1854. He was however German by birth as Königsberg was ceded to the Soviet Union after the Second World War. Paul and his brother were the sons of a certain August Pabst who was himself a composer and also the director of the Riga Conservatory. No doubt it is from this background that Paul gained his great love of the operatic repertoire. Paul studied in Vienna and finally with Liszt himself. He settled in Russia where he was a lecturer at the Moscow Conservatory. Much of his time was spent in teaching rather than on the concert hall trail. Perhaps his greatest pupils were Nicolas Medtner and the largely forgotten Sergei Liapunov. Grove mentions that in his day, Pabst was noted as an interpreter of Schumann and Franz Liszt. The young Rachmaninov is reputed to have asked Paul Pabst to join him in the first performance of the younger composer’s Fantasie Tableaux – Op.5. Tchaikovsky entrusted the editing of his piano music to the composer.

Pabst is little known these days. The bias against paraphrase and transcription has taken its toll. Amongst the cognoscenti he is well remembered for one work – the Paraphrase de concert sur l’opéra "Eugene Onegin." However he wrote a reasonable amount of other music – including original compositions. There is known to be a piano concerto and a chamber trio. Paul Pabst died in Moscow on 9th June 1897.

This present CD gives listeners an ideal opportunity to get to know some fine 'transcriptions' by an accomplished pianist and composer. All six paraphrases are minor masterpieces in their own right. Of course if the listener is looking for an original, deeply moving musical experiences s/he will not find it in the pages of these works. These are bravura pieces designed to reveal the highlights of the ballets and operas chosen by the composers. All these tunes would have been well known to the concert-goer or habitué of the salon. They would have been presented in a variety of guises by a number of composers. Some would have been good and some dreadful. What we have in these paraphrases is a fine pianism coupled with an ability to draw out the significance of the original music however do not look for the operatic story in music. There is no sequential narrative to these pieces. It is the tune and the elaboration of the tune that counts.

This is a lovely CD. The playing is everything one would expect for this kind of music. All the artifices of nineteenth century pianism are well exploited. There is always a danger with this sort of music that the pianist does not take it seriously; that somehow it can be parodied instead of being played properly. Oleg Marshev plays these works with panache and a style that would have done the idols of the salons proud. There is much lovely music here. Of course the big tunes are well known - the waltzes from Eugene Onegin and Sleeping Beauty. But so many other favourite melodies are either played or hinted at. There is another pitfall that can trip up so many pianists. It is virtuosic music, and they go over the top with making sure that you know it is fiendishly difficult. Marshev has an ability to present the music as if it is 'easy' to play. Yet we hear every detail of this technically difficult and complex music. It is one of the unexplainable facets of good piano playing.


John France


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