Dvorak: trio Dumky op.90 trancription by the author

Dohnanyi - Quintet in do minore op. 1, trascr. by  Jan Brandts Buys

La Bottega Discantica, Milan BDI172 Piano Duet: Palmas piano duo

The compositions performed on this CD are from the end of the nineteenth century, or more precisely, from the period between 1891 and 1895.  At that time is was a common practice to write other versions and transcriptions of a composition with different instrumentation, sometimes suggested by the publishers themselves.  Without the modern means of musical diffusion, publishers used salons in private homes for the popularization of these compositions.  Here music was performed in the presence of a circle of friends.

On 11 April 1891, the "Dumky" Trio was performed for the first time in Prague.  It was the last composition Dvorak wrote for this sort of chamber ensemble.  This masterpiece of  Dvorak's musical maturity is subdivided into six movements, or "dumka", where meditative and nostalgic solos alternate with impetuous folk-like episodes.

Two years later, in 1893, Dvorak sent a copy of the trio from New York to the publisher Simrock (the drafts of which were corrected by Brahms) together with the four-hands piano version.  Both scores were published the following year.  In the practice of transcribing for other chamber music formations, it was often the composers themselves who transcribed the original composition, and sometimes with the addition of one or more instruments.  On other occasions the original compositions were transcribed by other composers aquainted with or even unrelated to the composer.

According to the offical catalogue of works by Dvorak, he transcribed only three chamber works for four-hands piano: String quartet, Op. 27, String quintet No. 2 in G major and the Dumky Trio.  In addition, there are the transcriptions of symphonies No. 7, 8 and 9, of other orchestral compositions and, of course, of the two series of Slavic Dances, well-known in both the piano and orchestral versions.  

Another composition which was transcribed was the Quintet Op. 1 by Ernst von Dohnanyi.  It was composed in 1895, when the composer was 17, and it received widespread success, including praise by Brahms, who organized a performance of this composition in Vienna in the same year.  It was transcribed for four-hands piano by the Dutch composer Jan Brandts Buys, and published by Doblinger in 1902.  The two composers met each other in 1893, and in 1899 they both competed for the Bosendorf Scholarship where they performed their own compositions (Dohnanyi won first prize, Jan Buys won second).  From the start of the twentieth century, B. Buys was dedicated to transcribing for piano and for four-hands piano for the publishers Universal and Doblinger.  His transcriptions include the four-hands piano transcriptions of the String Quartet, Op. 7, the Serenata for String Trio, Op. 10, and the Suite for Orchestra, Op. 19 by  Dohnanyi.  The transcription of the latter composition is extremely pianistic, even if it is dense and complex for the continuous weaving of the voices, and far from the impervious writing which often accompanies transcriptions from larger instrumental ensembles.


R.Schumann: Quintet op. 44 transcription by Clara Schumann

Quartet op. 47 transcription by R. Brahms

La Bottega Discantica Milan, BDI219

Piano duet: Palmas piano Duo

In The Man Without Qualities, Walter and Clarisse are presented to the reader performing a four-hands piano duet: Ode to Joy.  This scene must have been commonplace in middle-class homes between the 19th and 20th centuries where there was sure to be a piano: a symbol of cultural identity. It was a place for gathering and socializing and, why not, also for dalliances and marital affairs.  Through the piano, new salon music was presented, as well as piano reductions for two or four hands of great symphonic works which had perhaps been heard only once, or had not been heard at all.  It is not by chance that Schumann chose Liszt's piano reduction for his famous analysis of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, when he presented the German public with a new standard for the Romantic symphony.  Almost all of the great musical masterpieces of the 19th century existed in a piano version.  These were sometimes honest efforts, by obscure composers, or reelaborations with their own unique importance, and possible alternative versions of the original.  In fact, Schumann stated that Liszt's reduction should have been considered an independent work for the precision with which it had been written, and that from then on, one could have made certain reflections on the possible symphonic treatment of the piano(!).

Just how widespread the practice of transcribing had become is illustrated by the several versions of Schumann's Quintet Op. 44 and Quartet op. 47 for four-hands piano that exist.  And the story of these authoritative examples (recorded here together for the first time) is as intricate as it is engrossing. Clara was particularly fond of the Quintet, and  both she and Robert had thought about a possible four-hands piano reduction to more easily popularize this work among German music lovers.  Between the end of 1854 and the beginning of 1855, Brahms fulfilled this desire, together with the piano reduction of the Quartet Op. 47.  Schumann was still alive, and only a year earlier he had written the famous article Neue Bahnen (New Paths) in which he hailed the unknown young composer from Hamburg as a rising star of the new music.  It is certain that the transcription, besides  being a homage to the venerated Maestro (and to the even more venerated Clara), was a way for Brahms to deepen his knowledge of composing chamber music, and to understand the intricacies of balance between the strings and the piano.  In 1855 he had only written the first version of the Trio Op. 8 (if we do not consider the Trio in A major to be spurious).  Furthermore, his thorough knowledge of Schumann's chamber music masterpieces must have been fundamental for his following works, starting from the great fioritura of 1861 (Op. 25, 26 and the Quintet Op. 34)

But let us proceed with the details of this story.  Brahms himself wrote in a letter to Joachim that during one of Clara's tours in Ostend, he had thought of surprising her for her birthday: I thought of turning her old wish into reality, so I transcribed Schumann's Quintet for four hands piano.  I secretly took the the manuscript from the cupboard so she wouldn't suspect anything, and I dove right into it as if it were a pair of dark blue eyes.  But it did not go as planned, and his version was rejected by Breitkopf & Härtel for its extreme difficulty.  A few years later Clara herself composed another version, probably starting from Brahms' reduction.  In fact, she wrote a letter to Härtel (25 Oct. 1857) stating: I had already mentioned to you that I wanted to simplify the reduction of the Quintet by my husband.  I have completed it, but it was difficult not to distort the original composition.  Brahms' reduction disappeared (we do have another example for piano solo of the Scherzo).  The piano version of the Quartet followed a different route.  It too remained unpublished for a long time because the publisher Henze had published another transcription by Carl Reinecke, and he therefore owned the rights.  Strangely, when the publisher Arnold bought Brahms' version of Op. 47, the rights had not yet expired, and only a rough draft had been written, which could not be put for sale.  Finally, but not until 1887, Brahms' transcription was officially published by a publisher in Berlin, Fürstner.  Lastly, we should remember that there is another version of the Quartet written by August Horn, a composer known mostly for his innumerable piano transcriptions of classical and romantic works.

The two piano reductions recorded here, by two great composers whose biographies are inextricably connected to Schumann, are obviously very precise, except for two curious oversights.  In fact, Clara repeats a bar in the Finale, and Brahms leaves out four bars.  But both "incorrect" versions are still in some way plausible, and we have chosen to record the published version.  Besides this, one should note the great attention given to the piano writing, sometimes at the cost of forcing the two pianists to cross hands where the overlapping of registers does not allow any other solution.  But as often occurs, necessity is the mother of invention and it leads to brilliant solutions which sometimes add a touch of originality.  In the first movement of the Quintet, for example, Clara moves the responses of the viola up an octave in the beautiful duet with the cello which characterizes the second theme, giving more emphasis to the musical expression.  In the beginning of the Andante cantabile of Op. 47, to give space to the famous cello theme, Brahms moves the anxious violin and viola figure up an octave, giving the passage new emphasis and still more expressiveness.

What strikes the listener most of all is the attention the two illustrious transcribers give to the instrumental colour.  First of all, certain octave doublings (above and below) gives more depth or brilliance to certain passages, like the effect of 16' or 4' stops on the organ.  But even more important is the precision given to the pedal marks, especially in passages where the original work proposes special timbres.  For example, both pedals are explicitly indicated by Clara in the final chord of the Marcia of Op. 44 (given to the harmonics of the strings in the original composition).  Even Brahms gives very detailed indications at the beginning of the Coda of the third movement of the Quartet where there is an admirable and transparent development of various layers of sound above a cello pedal.  Again, we are reminded of what Schumann wrote about Liszt's reduction of the Symphonie Fantastique: This art of interpretation, the multi-faceted range of touch that it requires, the efficient use of the pedal, the clear weaving of the individual parts, the rearrangement of the instrumentation, in short, the knowledge of the means and of the many secrets which the piano still hides - all this can only be the work of a great composer, of a genius of interpretation.