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Stolen Music - Transcriptions for Piano Trio
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune [10:28]
Paul DUKAS (1865-1935)
L’apprenti sorcier [12:28]
Arnold SCHÖNBERG (1874-1951)
Verklärte Nacht [29:23]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
La Valse [12:44]
Linos Piano Trio
rec. 2021, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Studio 2, Munich, Germany
CAVI-MUSIC 8553035 [65:04]

A little over a year ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing a highly-acclaimed CD dedicated to the complete piano trios of CPE Bach, and performed so admirably by the Linos Piano Trio. So when their new release appeared, and with a somewhat puzzling title, I knew it was something I wanted to get my hands on at the first opportunity.

The front of the jewel case includes the first half of the title – ‘Stolen Music’. But it’s only when you turn the case over that you get to see the continuation – ‘Transcriptions for Piano Trio’ – assuming that you can easily make out orange text against a light background – Art Editor, please note.

Thai-British pianist Prach Boondiskulchok, who compiled the CD booklet, begins by giving his own take on the title ‘Stolen Music’, prefacing this with the somewhat controversial quote, usually attributed to Igor Stravinsky: ‘Good composers borrow, great ones steal’. Boondiskulchok expands on this for more than a page, when all he really needed to do was to apply what he says about Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht, to the other works on the CD. The object of the exercise was to make each transcription sound like a new work for the piano-trio medium, rather than any attempt to make it sound as close to the original instrumentation, while using a different resources – which is what makes each transcription, and the CD as a whole, so fascinating to listen to.

Because of the somewhat dubious connotation of the word ‘stolen’, when compared with ‘borrowed’, I would have felt happier – without the context of Stravinsky’s quotation – to go for a snappier title like ‘morphed music’ – where you also get the alliteration for no extra charge. Pianists, for example, may prefer Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ in its original form, rather than Ravel’s later albeit-masterful orchestral version. Brahms’s epic Piano Quintet in F minor, often called the ‘crown of his chamber music’, started life as a string quintet, which the composer then transcribed into a sonata for two pianos, before giving it its final form. On some occasions, the outcome can feel preferable to the original – sometimes, though, the converse is true, as I discovered when recently reviewing Carl Reinecke’s piano-trio arrangement of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto.

The Linos Trio has chosen four works, three of which, as Boondiskulchok comments, are all imbued with ‘poetic images of transformation’, and represent works based on poems of the same name. While that doesn’t actually apply to the final piece – Ravel’s La Valse – the composer did at least subtitle it a ‘choreographic poem’.

First on the agenda is Debussy’s much-loved impressionist tone-poem Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, composed in 1894. The booklet combines a précis of the composer’s programme, with one or two general comments on the transcription itself. But before reading anything further, I put on the first few seconds of the transcription to check out how the fifth bar would sound where, in the orchestral version, the first horn’s short motif is sounded just after the initial harp glissando, something that has always appeared quite magical moment to me.

If the transcription could make this sound equally as enchanting, with ne’er a wind instrument in sight – as well as simulate Debussy’s highly-idiomatic writing for the flute – then it would surely tick all my boxes from there on in.. Well, within just a few seconds I was won over, and even had to replay from the start, a couple of times, because the original answering phrase, now heard on the third horn, sounded even more tantalisingly close to the original – something that Boondiskulchok had earlier alluded to . To complete the illusion, the listener simply needs to cast aside all thoughts of Debussy’s original conception, in order to appreciate that what we indeed have here, is a musical reincarnation – not a perfunctory adaptation.

I can confidently say that the first time I would have heard L’apprenti sorcier (1897) by Paul Dukas, was in the early years of my old grammar-school, when class-music-lessons consisted of learning how to read music with the aid of the infamous school descant recorder, learning about famous composers, and listening to their music. This would nearly always require copying down some background information, which, in the case of this particular work, would no doubt include the fact that the music is ‘a brilliant musical depiction of Goethe’s poem Der Zauberlehrling’. While my days as a schoolboy are long since passed, I still have a fair recall of the orchestral version – in particular the almost iconic bassoon part. But the Linos Trio’s quite stunning performance was a complete revelation. Again I heard so many mesmerizing musical subtleties that had simply passed me by before, even with the seeming advantage of a full symphony orchestra playing.

The booklet informs us that Schönberg composed his tone-poem Verklärte Nacht in just three weeks in September, 1899, originally for string sextet. Here the transcription for piano trio is by Eduard Steuermann (1932), whereas the others on the CD are by the Linos Piano Trio themselves. It is cast in five movements: Sehr langsam - Breiter - Schwer betont - Sehr breit und langsam - Sehr Ruhig, and the most substantial work on the CD.

In talking about the specific challenges of Steuermann’s arrangement, Boondiskulchok says that it is a ‘challenge to play a piece written for six people with only three’, which does seem a tad incongruous, considering that all the other transcriptions started out in full-orchestral garb. Again it works perfectly well as a piano trio, and reminded me of a CD in my own collection, featuring the chamber music of Hermann Zilcher (1881-1948) – a romantic who ignored most of the musical innovations of his time, unlike Schönberg, whose totally-chromatic expressionism, evolved naturally enough, as a facet of the Second Viennese School.

Writing about Ravel’s La Valse (1920), Boondiskulchok explains that this is their most recent transcription to date, and one where they have ‘taken the greatest creative license’, citing the reason that none of the other composers here has produced a mature piano trio, except Ravel, whose Piano Trio in A minor is definitely one of the masterpieces in the genre. Whatever degree of ‘creative license’ the Linos Trio have taken in this absolutely stunning transcription, they could surely have done no more in bringing such a highly-innovative and immensely enjoyable CD to such a grand close. Ravel described La Valse with the following preface to the score: ‘Through whirling clouds, waltzing couples may be faintly distinguished. The clouds gradually scatter: one sees at letter A an immense hall peopled with a whirling crowd. The scene is gradually illuminated. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth at the fortissimo letter B. Set in an imperial court, about 1855’. The Linos reincarnation embodies the true apotheosis of the Viennese Waltz, even if seemingly on steroids, with a performance that is musically right off the Richter scale. Not only is it my personal favourite here, but it’s also the track, which for me, sounds at least as good, if not arguably better than the composer’s orchestral original.

I make no apologies for not having felt the need to comment specifically on the sheer musical quality of The Linos Piano Trio, whether as individuals or as a perfectly-honed ensemble of the very highest order, and one that must surely rank them as one of the best piano trios around today. And, as befits such a flawless performance, the recording, courtesy of Bavarian Broadcasting, is absolutely matchless in capturing it with such breath-taking fidelity.

For what it’s worth, I still feel a bit undecided about the title of the CD. But even if anything has been ‘stolen’ at any point, then I am more than happy to write it off as one of the most perfect ‘musical crimes’ ever.
Philip R Buttall
Prach Boondiskulchok (piano); Konrad Elias-Trostmann (violin); Vladimir Waltham (cello)

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