Thursday, 9 April 2009

The Art of Transcriptions: An Interview with Kenneth Hamilton

Kenneth Hamilton, pianist and author of After The Golden Age, is no stranger to Singapore. His recitals of outsized Romantic repertoire have become popular yearly affairs, matched only by those at the Singapore International PianoFest. His recital on Sunday 12 April 2009 (Esplanade Recital Studio, 7.30pm) features only piano transcriptions, a first recital of this kind since 2001 (Frederic Chiu @ PianoFest). Like his previous interview, erudition and humour are equal and happy partners.

Transcriptions aren't exactly new. Bach wrote them (of works by Vivaldi, Marcello et al) and so did Mozart (his early piano concertos and wind arrangements of his operas). Why are they considered a phenomenon of the Romantic era?

To be perfectly frank, they're often regarded as typically Romantic through sheer ignorance! Many people don't know the Bach and Mozart arrangements you mention. In fact, the very earliest surviving keyboard music - the 14th-century Robertsbridge Codex, which is now in the British Library in London - consists largely of transcriptions of vocal motets. So we can actually say that keyboard instruments - whether piano, organ, harpsichord or clavichord - have always been thought of as specially suitable for transcriptions of vocal and ensemble music. Indeed, it's really only the keyboard that can manage this sort of arrangement, because only the keyboard player is able to reproduce both tune and accompaniment, or a complex mixture of parts, all at the same time.

Of course, the association with the Romantic era also has its justification. It was only then - around the middle of the 19th-century - that the piano became flexible and powerful enough genuinely to imitate the impact of an orchestra, and naturally many Romantic composers made thunderous transcriptions with these dazzling new qualities in mind.

Liszt was arguably the greatest transcriber of all time. Yet he was sometimes vilified for this work. Were his transcriptions so variable in quality?

I don't think many would disagree that as far as transcriptions go, Liszt was “the greatest”. In terms of piano writing, Liszt's transcriptions are all of the same astonishingly high imaginative level. In terms of the music transcribed, alas, this is not always the case.

Although Liszt had a very good ear for what sort of music would work on the piano, he was occasionally forced for diplomatic reasons to arrange music that would have been better left in decent obscurity. Perhaps the worst of all is his transcription from the opera Tony by the Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Liszt wanted to do the Duke a favour, but the Duke's musical talents were in inverse proportion to his egotism. All Liszt's pianistic skill can't disguise the utterly pitiful quality of the themes. In fact, the final effect borders on the hilarious, as if you were spending a lot of money fitting trendy leather seats and new headlights to a rusty old car with no engine! You'll be delighted to know that I'm not planning to play the Tony transcription in Singapore anytime soon.

What, in your opinion, makes a piece of music particularly worthy for transcription?

I know it sounds rather old-fashioned to say so - but you really need a piece with a good tune, or at least some segment of memorable melody. That's why most of the Liszt opera fantasies, or the Johann Strauss/Godowsky waltz transcriptions work so well. On the other hand, if the original piece has too many fast-moving parts weaving in and out of the texture, then it probably isn't suitable for piano transcription. That's the case with the big orchestral pieces of Richard Strauss, for example. A symphonic poem like Don Juan sounds fantastic when played by a good orchestra, but would really be a damp squib on the piano. There's simply too much going on at the same time for successful transfer to the keyboard.

Are there transcriptions which are actually better than the original work? What may these be, for example?

Well, this is where things get a bit contentious. Personally, I actually prefer Busoni's Bach Chaconne to Bach's Bach Chaconne - but I'm sure this view will call forth wails of protest from Bach purists [and violinists. Ed.] I'm obviously very tasteless!

Percy Grainger's folk-song arrangements have a richness of harmony that could hardly be imagined from looking at the relatively simple, single-line source material, and some of Liszt's Donizetti transcriptions are much more sophisticated productions than the original numbers in the operas. And that's before we even get to something like Liszt's transcription of Hans von Bülow's song Dante's Sonnet. Even von Bülow himself admitted that the Liszt version was far better than the original!

Transcriptions have often overshadowed the original works of the transcribers eg. Busoni and even Percy Grainger. Is this a regrettable thing, or were these pianist-composers just better as transcribers than composers?

Busoni and Grainger probably produced their most characteristic work as transcribers- and audiences seem to have felt this, even though some of their original creations, like the Busoni Toccata or the Grainger Colonial Song, are really splendid pieces. On the other hand, there's no reason to undervalue their astonishing achievements as transcribers.

Some composers, like Schumann, wrote many fine original pieces but truly awful transcriptions. Schumann had virtually no talent for transcription at all. We should value artists like Busoni and Grainger for their best work, whether it was produced in the guise of transcription or as 'original' composition. And anyway, some notable composers, like Ronald Stevenson, think that there's really no difference between an 'original' composition and a good transcription - both require the same imagination and creativity.

Among the living pianists who wrote transcriptions eg. Ronald Stevenson (left), Earl Wild, Frederic Meinders, Marc-Andre Hamelin, Stephen Hough and Arcadi Volodos. Whose work do you particularly appreciate and why?

I play quite a number of Ronald Stevenson's transcriptions, not only because he was one of my teachers, but because they're always ingeniously written, and utterly idiomatic for the piano. The fact that Ronald is a real composer, and not just a hack arranger, is obvious whatever he's writing. When playing them you can really understand the reasons why he thinks that composition and transcription are basically the same thing.

Earl Wild's Rachmaninoff song transcriptions are also splendid, and played by their creator with great gusto. The other pianists you mention have written many very effective arrangements, and I would add Cziffra and Pletnev to their number. I've always felt, however, that their pieces are best left primarily for their own performance - they contain characteristics typical of their own playing style that could be imitated by other players, but not reproduced with such conviction. In other words, why should you bother going to hear me play a Hamelin arrangement when you can go to hear Hamelin play it instead? Each to their own.

Have you written transcriptions of your own? And when do you play them?

I've written quite a few transcriptions, which I trot out mainly as encores. The one I've probably performed most frequently is an arrangement of Softly Awakes My Heart from Saint-Saëns' Samson and Delilah - a wonderful aria that contains not one, but two beautiful tunes. I must admit, though, that in my dark and distant student days I used to play in cocktail bars to make some money, so I reckon that I've improvised my way through hundreds of tunes, from Nessun dorma to Somewhere Over The Rainbow. I once even gave a concert that consisted of nothing but improvisations on popular melodies. The audience seemed to enjoy it - and I absolutely loved it. After all, I didn't need to practise - I just stepped on stage and played whatever came to mind. It was the easiest concert I'd ever given!

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