The art of transcription
was a particularly 19th century affair with many
composers, from Liszt onwards, re-creating standard repertory
items on the piano. With the coming of recording the art of
transcription rather faded, but a few composers such as Busoni,
Grainger and Ronald Stevenson kept the flame live.
By transcription I mean the re-creating
in one medium of music written for another. This art requires
that the composer stay true to the original piece but create
a piece which is truly idiomatic for the new medium: just think
of Liszt’s version of the quartet from ‘Rigoletto’.
Generally the art
of transcription is performed on the piano, but this disc contains
a group of magical transcriptions for choir. The disc describes
them as choral arrangements by Clytus Gottwald, but they are
real transcriptions. In each, Gottwald has re-created the original
music in a new choral guise, many written for sixteen part choir.
of his choral forces should come as no surprise. He is a distinguished
choral trainer and founded the Stuttgart Schola Cantorum in
1960 and conducted it until 1990.
In his booklet notes,
Gottwald describes how during a workshop with Pierre Boulez,
Gottwald conceived the idea of transcribing Soupir from
Ravel’s Trois Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé for voices
utilising the technique for writing for voices that Ligeti used
in Lux aeterna. This was the first in what has become
a fascinating sequence of works.
Some pieces sound
relatively straightforward, such as Berlioz’s Sur les lagunes
but even this uses a sixteen part choir, so I suspect that things
are not quite as simple as they seem underneath. Judging by
his booklet notes, Gottwald has quite a technical attitude to
re-creating instrumental sounds in voices. He explains about
his use of overtones, undertones and sub-harmonics. This may
or may not be of interest to the listener; all that really need
concern us is the magical nature of the resulting pieces.
Regarding the texts,
Gottwald is similarly imaginative. His transcription of Debussy’s
Des pas sur la neige from the 1st volume of
Preludes uses a French poem by Rilke along with stray
lines by Mallarmé. For Wolf’s Auf ein altes Bild the
archaic-sounding piano accompaniment is transcribed with the
text of a medieval Marian hymn and the hymn Vexilla regis.
For Wolf’s Der Gartner the piano accompaniment is constructed
as an inner monologue between the gardener and the princess
using a collage of stock phrases from Romantic poetry.
All the pieces on
this disc are entrancing but the Wagner and the Mahler pieces
particularly struck me. Perhaps because Gottwald has been truly
effective at transferring the romantic orchestra onto the choir.
Both Wagner transcriptions from Tristan und Isolde create
a truly distinctive Wagnerian atmosphere. The disc closes with
Gottwald’s transcription of Mahler’s Ich bin der Welt abhanden
gekommen, a profoundly moving song given a deeply lovely
by the KammerChor Saabrücken under Georg Grün are excellent.
The choir excels at rendering Gottwald’s lovely textures without
seeming too effortful. Judging by the photo in the CD booklet
the choir must be around forty to fifty strong, but split into
sixteen parts means that these pieces can still be quite taxing.
Also, Gottwald uses the singers’ vocal range to its utmost with
some soaring soprano vocal lines. Only rarely does the performance
slip; the choir’s performances usually sound almost effortless.
I can recommend
this disc to anyone who loves choral music; these pieces take
a group of well-known pieces and re-create them in a magical