INKPOT — Beethoven – Contemporary Arrangements – GUILD
Ludwig van Beethoven
Contemporary arrangements for Chamber Ensemble
Symphonies nos. 1 and 8
Pathétique Sonata, Op. 13
Total Time : 69.54 Full Price
by Derek Lim
Arrangements have always been made of “popular” music, some by the composers themselves, some by others, so why not the music of Beethoven? The program notes make a good case for what we hear on this disc, but the proof of the pudding as always is in the eating. Nothing will prepare you for how convincingly these masterpieces have been reworked; in fact, far from being mere curiosities to be heard once and forgotten, they bear repeated listening as alternative versions of the music we know and love so well.
The Pathétique Sonata, op.13 “Quintetto pour 2 Violons, 2 Altos et Violoncello compos par Louis van Beethoven” (Quintet for 2 Violins, 2 Violas and Cello composed by Ludwig van Beethoven) is the first arrangement we encounter. This was published by Tobias Haslinger, a contemporary of Beethoven who was perhaps also the arranger. From the outset you notice how it isn’t just a note-for-note transcription spread over the instruments. The most notable modifications are in certain figures in the melodic line, presumably to sound more at home on strings.
The second movement Adagio Cantabile, with its soulful theme, has appeared in other adaptations, with good reason — the vocal quality of the music is irresistible and the Locrian Ensemble make the best of this, emphasizing the cantabile more than the adagio, with the result that it sounds as if Beethoven himself could have been written for this combination of instruments – simply delicious.
The first subject of the edgy Rondo Allegro is perhaps the least suitable for adaptation to strings, but still the ear soon settles. Besides, the second subject sounds perfectly at home in the viola quintet, so all is not lost! Perhaps a little of the percussive quality of the piano is lost, which in the more stormy passages of the work may be seen as a disadvantage, but if we take it on its own terms, instead of comparing it with the piano sonata, it is quite successful.
The Locrian Ensemble give a thoughtful delivery of the work that doesn’t descend into needless rhetoric. It is rather middle-of-the-road, in fact, not the evangelistic, over-played reading that one might expect from a group dying to win converts to its cause, which makes it all the more winning.
So much for small works writ for large ensemble, but how about the two other works on this disc – the eighth and the first symphony? I’m happy to report that the results are on the whole quite convincing, and in some cases even charming. The eighth symphony is what we hear first. Certainly much of the heft of the full orchestra is missing, not to mention all that gorgeous instrumental colour, but taken on its own merits, this arrangement does bear listening on its own terms. The Locrians know this and don’t try to scale up their performance to make them sound more “symphonic”. On the debit department, some of the ability to stretch dynamics is lost and the truly forte passages suffer. The ensemble also choose a narrower range of tempi in keeping with this and the effect is that the music sometimes sounds less exciting than in its orchestral garb.
The second movement sounds as if it might have been written for these instruments, the metronomic quality well caught. If the timpani part in the minuet had been included in the transcription I would have been happier, but still the middle two movements fare very well, losing much less in the transcription than the first movement. The Allegro vivace finale isn’t quite as fast as I like it (try Hermann Scherchen with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to have your socks knocked off) and the size of the ensemble again limits the dynamic possibilities, reducing the humour in the music, but in the final analysis Beethoven’s genius still shines through.
On to the first symphony then. The music lends itself very well to miniaturization; as with the Pathetique sonata arrangement the notes aren’t all the same and in some parts the tremolo in the violins is played straight, a case where the arrangement isn’t as good as the original, I think. Still, the playing is youthful and energetic. Not much else is felt wanting in the other movements. Certainly the Scherzo feels less festive than usual but again, taken as it is, one can enjoy Beethoven’s music even stripped bare. The same straight-playing of the tremolo in the violins occurs in the usually rollicking finale, making it sound more sober than normal. Laid bare, this is perhaps the least successful of the four movements in terms of the arrangement, but it’s still worth a listen.
These recordings were made by the Locrian Ensemble and they are persuasive advocates of these arrangements. They were recorded at St. Martin’s Church in Berkshire and St. Silas Church in London and catch the five members intimately and vividly, the important icing on a delectable cake. I would recommend this disc to all who have ever become bored of hearing these works in their original guises and are open to some experimentation.
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