Rearrangements Reconsidered

The curiosities and conundrums of composers overruled.

Rachmaninov at the piano. Cropped from source. Wikimedia Commons.

Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 22.12.45     By Young-Jin Hur

By personal associations of an untraceable nature, the music of Rachmaninov has a quality of winter for me. It is by no accident then that around the time of year that Christmas decorations are slowly appearing, I find myself listening to a work by this Russian composer.

A recent choice is the so-called ‘fifth piano concerto’, performed by pianist Julius-Jeongwon Kim and the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Francis. As Rachmaninov has four piano concertos to his name, one may be surprised to come across this disc. There is little evidence that the composer ever conceived of a fifth work in the genre. In fact, this concerto is a remoulding of Rachmaninov’s second symphony.

Yet this ‘fifth’ concerto is no mere transcription. Beyond the added texture of a solo piano, the symphony’s four-movement structure is cast into a three-movement form by amalgamating the Scherzo and Adagio of the original work. There are also some noticeable personal stamps of Alexander Warenberg, who arranged the work in 2001 by commission of Pieter Van Winkel and Alexandre Rachmaninov (the composer’s grandson). With such reshaping of the second symphony, and the degree of re-composition considered, a newly numbered concerto status assigned to the work is somewhat justifiable.

Most certainly, this is no occasion for purists. Warenburg’s creation obviously goes against the composer’s intention of the symphony as a complete work, and the balance of the original architecture is questioned. Whether this concerto, so extensively reworked, can be called a Rachmaninov piece is debatable. Still, interpretational diversity and rearrangements are common in the performing arts, and classical music is no exception.

Otto Klemperer’s lugubrious 1965 recording of Handel’s Messiah will undoubtedly raise eyebrows among Baroque specialists, because its approach is thought to be much against the way music was played in the 18th century. The uniqueness of this recording is especially pronounced when compared to ‘period’ performances, such as those by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants. Beyond the issues of slow tempo and use of modern playing techniques (e.g. vibrato), Klemperer’s decision to diminish the role of the harpsichord, use modern instruments, and ignore da capos, (i.e. repeats), give an altogether new feel to the Baroque masterpiece.

Incidentally, it is the same conductor who cut around 220 bars from his studio recording of Bruckner’s 8th symphony, citing that ‘the composer was so full of musical invention that he went too far.’ Still, it was no rare occasion for conductors of past generations to manipulate what is written on the score. Furtwängler and Mengelberg produced exhilarating performances at the expense of strictly adhering to tempo markings. The symphonies of Robert Schumann have been particular targets of re-orchestration, given the widespread belief of the German composer’s inexperience in this regard. To cite the Hungarian conductor George Szell, Schumann’s ‘inability to establish proper balances … can and must be helped with all means known to any professional conductor who professes to be a cultured and style-conscious musician.’ Gustav Mahler, who documented his own edited versions of symphonies by Schumann and Beethoven by altering the form as well as the orchestration, was convinced such rearrangements would benefit the music as these changes would fit modern ears.

Still, pure objectivity is foreign to these reworkings, as they often reflect the arranger’s own personal style, perhaps inevitably so. Leopold Stokowski’s orchestral arrangements of J.S. Bach often have a lyrical ardour, reflecting the string sound the conductor nurtured in the Philadelphia Orchestra. The pointillistic colour of Arnold Schoenberg’s adaptation of Bach’s prelude and fugue in E flat major, on the other hand, may owe to the composer’s idea of Klangfarbenmelodie, where a musical melody is broken down between various instruments.

If anything, given the contour unique to each instrument, rearrangements themselves often produce unique emotional effects. Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour On The Cross proves a good example of how a single work can exist in no fewer than four different combinations, (orchestral, string quartet, choral, piano), all written/approved by the composer himself. Unquestionably, the intimacy of the piano version can never match the thunderous sublimity present in the choral version of the work.

Often, the reworking of certain works require much more than the transfer between mediums. Notable examples include the completion of unfinished symphonies, left by composers such as Enescu, Elgar, Mahler and Bruckner. These are the efforts of scholars and musicians, who reconstruct a work based on their research of existing manuscripts, correspondences and sketches. The recent completion of Schubert’s ‘unfinished’ symphony in B minor by Venzago and the Kammerorchester Basel is especially enlightening in the creative direction it took. In addition to the two movements usually performed, Venzago includes two further movements, based on existing sketches and excerpts of the incidental music to Rosamunde. The arrangement is informed by the record of the composer supposedly having used the finished finale of the symphony as a substitute for sections of the Rosamunde score.

Unfortunately, not all re-workings are clear in the delineation between the composer’s own input and the works of colleagues. One case is Mozart’s Requiem, a work left unfinished at the composer’s death, and believed to have been finished by a contemporary Franz Xaver Süssmayr. Borodin’s opera Prince Igor was a work left in such fragmented manuscripts that the joint effort of Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov was necessary for its posthumous performance. In both cases, the question of the extent of the input of the original composer is a perennial itch among scholars and performers alike.

Then there is Stravinsky. Stravinsky’s flair for adopting and re-composing existing melodies is reflected in his words that ‘lesser artists borrow, great artists steal’. The wide range of his practice ranges from the numerous remodellings of his own works – Pulcinella, which is based on music from 18th century Italy, exists in three different versions – to compositions based on melodies outside classical music. The Fairy’s Kiss, composed as a ballet work commemorating the 35th anniversary of Tchaikovsky’s death, is rooted on the late composer’s early piano works. The unmistakable presence of Stravinsky’s clarity and rhythmic alertness combines with Tchaikovsky’s melodic sensibility to wondrous effect. Much like Venzago’s attempt at completing Schubert’s symphony, this is a case of how rearrangements are not bounded by specific genres.

Purists will exist in any field of the performing arts, in the form of voices pointing to adherence to the intentions of the creator, or in the will to refrain from disrupting an order set by standards of the past.

But an important consideration is the validity of the so-called original intentions. There is no way of determining exactly how Handel wanted his oratorios to be played, nor how Borodin wanted his opera to be shaped. Clearly, Schubert did not expect his B minor symphony to be performed as an unfinished two-movement work, nor did Tchaikovsky expect his youthful piano works to form the basis of a ballet with 20th century musical idioms. Yet these works still get performed in their various ways, and they are as appreciated and as moving as ever.

As the conductor Herbert von Karajan noted, music-making is like the touching of fresh snow; once touched by the warmth of human hands, snow ceases to be the pure thing it was – yet without touching the snow, it is impossible to feel it. To put it differently, interpretation is inevitable in musical performance. If this is true, the notions of composers being presented objectively or truthfully soon acquire layers of vanity if not absurdity. As such, re-creation is intrinsic to the very nature of music-making, to which the act of rearranging works is merely an extension.

If anything, what is relevant to life never will cease to be questioned and reinvented. Thus it is the music lover’s responsibility to recognize the diversity of creation and the unique surprises they provide, and that music is never a settled matter when written down. Like language, music does not live off predestined absolutes, but exists as an organism of ever-evolving nature. So, let the music speak for itself in all its vast possibilities.

As I listen to Rachmaninov’s fifth piano concerto, I glimpse the inner world of the composer from a new light. The sensitive and clear-eyed playing of Julius Kim combines with the LSO’s clarity and warmth. While the second movement – based on the symphony’s two middle movements – works surprisingly well, the biggest surprise waits in the Allegro vivace. Here, Julius Kim’s composed poise generates a chamber music-like intimacy with the orchestra and conductor, even in the most virtuosic of moments. I am convinced. The music has spoken.

Young-Jin Hur is a PhD candidate in psychology at University College London, an ardent record collector and a self-professed Anton Bruckner enthusiast. He has written concert notes for the Seoul Arts Centre and one of Korea’s largest classical music online communities, 클래식에 미치다 (‘Crazy about Classical Music’). He contributes regularly to Bachtrack, Seen and Heard and MusicWeb International. His writings are available on his blog Where Cherries Ripen.