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Kaleidoscope: Beethoven Transcriptions
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet Op. 59 No. 1: II. Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando (arr. Camille Saint-SaŽns) [8:58]
String Quartet Op. 18 No. 6: II. Adagio ma non troppo (arr. Saint- SaŽns) [7:25]*
String Quartet Op. 59 No. 2: III. Allegretto - Maggiore (arr. Mili Balakirev) [8:36]
String Quartet Op. 130: V. Cavatina. Adagio molto espressivo (arr. Balakirev) [6:47]
String Quartet Op. 135: II. Vivace [3:48] & III. Lento assai, cantante e tranquillo (arr. Modest Mussorgsky) [10:07]*
An admired air by Mozart with variations for the pianoforte (Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet: IV. Allegretto con variazioni, arr. Beethoven) [9:46]*
Mari Kodama (piano)
rec. Studio 1 of the MCO, Hilversum, The Netherlands, October 2019
Reviewed as a download: a WAV file, booklet in PDF
* First recordings
PENTATONE PTC5186841 SACD [56:02]

As I have often said, I am a great fan of transcriptions, particularly those for piano. They often throw new light on familiar works, and showcase the composer’s genius by arranging something for instruments not originally intended. This disc, released in 2020, Beethoven 250 year, includes first recordings of arranged movements from string quartets, and a recently discovered set of variations by Beethoven himself.

Saint-SaŽns was an inveterate arranger. Two selections from his transcriptions of Beethoven’s string quartets open the disc. We begin with a superb arrangement of the Allegretto from the first of the Rasumovsky Quartets. The playing is wonderfully clear. All of Beethoven’s slightly off-track key changes and clever writing transfer very well to the medium of the piano. The scherzo-like nature of the piece comes across especially well, with some really rather amusing twists and turns. Mari Kodama must be familiar with the original: she appears to understand where the music is headed.

Next, a deeply felt Adagio from the last of the early quartets. This strange movement seems to have something in common with the later piano sonatas and even Liszt’s arrangements of the Symphonies (S464). There are also definitely hints at the slightly later Fourth Symphony. The playing is again utterly marvellous. Not all of this Adagio is slow. Several faster passages scurry around in a slightly disturbing fashion and generate a darker mood. It is rather a shame that Saint-SaŽns did not transcribe the remainder of the quartets: he made a superb job of what he did. That is an enlightening listening experience.

On to Balakirev’s arrangements; they seem to crop up on CD from time to time, more often in complete sets of Balakirev piano music (by Nicholas Walker and by Alexander Paley, to name but two). From the second Rasumovsky quartet, we have a cheerful – and here very difficult-sounding – Allegretto. You can sort of hear that the music was written for different forces. The transcription works but one has to imagine that it could be for some other instrument or instruments. The transition from the bouncy opening to the more skittish second theme works very well, and it is neatly handled. As the movement reaches its middle, there is a lot of leaping about and layers of sound to be projected (especially around 3:50). This is remarkably realised at this point and where it reoccurs toward the closing section of the movement. We have here another arrangement which belies the fact that it was not written for string quartet.

The fourth piece is a different kettle of fish altogether: the Cavatina from op. 130, marked Adagio. The playing is heartfelt and beautifully phrased. A sense of calm pervades most of the opening four minutes or so before a rather wonderful tune emerges. It reminds me of the Adagio of the piano sonata op. 110, especially in this arrangement. The piece gracefully glides to a quiet conclusion after some utterly wonderful playing of deeply affecting music.

I was surprised that Mussorgsky arranged two movements from Beethoven’s last quartet. It is not something one expects of him. Anyway, here they are. The bouncy Vivace works unexpectedly well for piano; the off-beat theme is presented perfectly. It sounds here easier than it probably is. The wonderfully mad bit about two minutes in – with a drone in the bass – is really rather wittily done. I do not miss the sounds of the strings at all! Mari Kodama plays very well indeed, with appropriate sophistication.

Next comes the deeply felt Lento assai. The contrast between the two movements could not be more marked. The opening theme, which here sounds quite like a hymn, is presented simply and beautifully, and the control and playing here are immaculate. The movement gently unfolds as is progresses, moving into stranger and stranger keys and sonorities. Especially in this middle section wonderful colours are drawn from the piano. The mood lightens a little as the work enters its final half with a touching little tune, delicately picked out in the treble. As usual in late Beethoven, there is a sense that he was writing only for himself, not for the listening public. The inwardness comes across intensely in this movement, even in a transcription. The ending is extremely touching. The arrangement works very well and this, given the superb playing, completely makes you forget that this was written for four string players. I could listen to this on repeat all day, it really is that good.

The last work, on seven tracks, is Beethoven’s newly discovered set of variations on a theme from Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet K. 581. The theme bounces along really cheerfully before undergoing short variations; the piece only last about ten minutes. The first sprightly variation plays nicely with Mozart’s bass lines, adding some very clever Beethovenian counterpoint in the right hand. There is lovely cantabile playing by Mari Kodama. Next is a much more rapid treatment of the theme, with lots of finger-twisting passagework, especially in the left hand; again, there is a happy atmosphere. The third variation, a much more delicate affair, plays interestingly with theme by breaking it down and putting it in a minor key. This acts nicely as a contrast to the preceding variations. There are hints of later Beethoven here in the strange suspended endings of phrasings, and overall this slightly mysterious little variation works very well.

The fourth variation bounces cheerfully around, dispelling the strangeness of the preceding variation. I like the way the main theme occurs in the bass before winding itself down to a conclusion, making way for the next, much longer and slower variation. This is again a beautiful little creation, full of witty pauses and strange chromatic asides from the main theme. You really have to listen out for the original theme in this variation, as it is well camouflaged by Beethoven’s clever take on it. The last half a minute is set in a minor key and sets you up nicely for the final variation. That variation starts off similarly to the opening theme before adding to and augmenting it in lots of clever ways. The ending is suitably witty and joyous. This really is a superb little work, excellently played.

There is an inherent problem in arranging string music for piano: the timbre is so entirely different. Many composers have tried, including those recorded here. Based upon my experience of listening to this disc, no problem here – thanks to the excellent playing and the quality of the arrangements. The sound is fine and the notes, while short, contain plenty of useful information about the compositions. This is a beguiling recording. I shall be returning to it often.

Jonathan Welsh

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