Friday, February 2, 2007


That’s not a growl. It is the abbreviation used in scores for "arranger" or "arrangement." Its appearance in concert programs prompts some highbrows to growl.

Arrangements of operatic, orchestral and chamber works have been around almost as long as the originals.

Baroque composers (in)famously cribbed from one another, and from themselves.
Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, composers made their music known – and earned much of their money – through piano reductions of orchestral and other ensemble scores, meant to be played at home. Liszt and other piano virtuosos wrote flashy elaborations on tunes from popular operas.

Austrian musicians of the late-18th and early 19th centuries arranged suites from the operas of Mozart and Rossini, even some of Beethoven’s orchestral music, for wind octets known as Harmonie. That tradition lives on in symphonic wind ensembles and concert bands playing arrangements of symphonic works.

Conductors of the late 19th century viewed themselves as collaborators with, rather than servants of, composers whose music they directed. Gustav Mahler’s reorchestrations of Schumann and Beethoven symphonies don't cry out for revival; but his string orchestrations of Schubert’s "Death and the Maiden" Quartet and Beethoven’s "Quartetto serioso" (Op. 95) are still performed and recorded with some frequency.

Felix Weingartner produced an orchestration of Beethoven’s "Hammerklavier" Sonata. George Szell orchestrated Smetana’s "From My Life" Quartet. Hamilton Harty and Thomas Beecham augmented Handel. Leopold Stokowski augmented Bach, as had Ferrucio Busoni and other pianists of the 19th century.

Solo violinists from Paganini onward have peppered their programs with arrangements of operatic, keyboard and other repertory. So do classical guitarists. So does every brass quintet playing for paying customers.

The Society for Private Musical Performance, organized by Arnold Schoenberg and friends in the early 1920s in Vienna, generated a number of chamber-scale arrangements of earlier Viennese orchestral music, from Strauss waltzes to symphonies and song cycles of Mahler.

Schoenberg's 1937 orchestration of Brahms's Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25, is in a category all its own, equal parts homage, parody, inspiration and intoxication.

The Richmond Festival of Music, directed by cellist James Wilson, will feature two arrangements on March 15: Beethoven's "Kreutzer" Sonata reworked for string quintet, and Schoenberg’s arrangement of Strauss’ "Emperor Waltz."

The Schoenberg, Berg and Webern versions of the Strauss waltzes are pretty familiar. The enlarged "Kreutzer" is another story. "I had never heard it or even knew of it," Wilson says.

"A former student of mine likes to find obscure pieces and send them to me for my
birthday and other occasions. So she sent me this 'Kreutzer,' an anonymous arrangement published by Simrock in 1832. It looks very hard but very good . . . and very egalitarian" in its apportioning of Beethoven's violin and piano parts among five fiddles.

"It's always nice to find music for quintet with two cellos," Wilson says. "Other than the Schubert and about a million Boccherinis, there isn't much literature out there."

Another arrangement making the rounds this season is the Shostakovich Chamber Symphony – Rudolf Barshai's orchestration of the String Quartet No. 8 – which the Richmond Symphony is playing on its tour programs.

Most arrangements are grouped by prevailing academic and critical opinion into two basic categories: (1) historical curiosities and (2) kitsch.

Several rungs up the ladder of respectability, you find efforts by early modern composers to revive music of (usually forgotten) earlier composers, filtered through the reviver’s style and sensibility: Stravinsky’s "Pulcinella," Respighi’s "Ancient Airs and Dances," Ravel’s "Le Tombeau de Couperin," and many sets of folk song rendered as art-song, piano miniature or orchestral dance suite.

That period also saw Ravel produce his now-standard orchestration of Mussorgsky’s "Pictures at an Exhibition." Ravel was late to the Mussorgsky game; the standard versions of most of the composer’s orchestral scores were post-mortem reworkings by Rimsky-Korsakov. (Mussorgsky untouched by Rimsky wasn’t widely heard until the 1970s.)

Challenging old hierarchies is one of our most popular indoor sports, so naturally musicians and listeners are reevaluating arrangements long dismissed by respectable opinion.

Conductors don’t blush when reviving Stokowski’s Bach or Mahler’s "Death and the Maiden." Pianists eagerly dive into Liszt’s opera potpourri. Violinists show their stuff in Sarasate’s "Carmen" Fantasy. Some Lieder singers are finally getting the hang of folk song.

The old condescension toward arrangements persists in chamber music, Wilson observes. "But as a cellist, I've always done a lot of arrangements" to compensate for gaps in the instrument's solo and chamber repertory. "And I think people now want to hear a broader range of music than you find in the established canon."

Six recordings of arrangements that, to my ears, do justice to the originals, even enhance them:

* Strauss/Schoenberg: "Emperor Waltz," "Roses from the South;" Strauss/Berg: "Wine, Women and Song;" Strauss/Webern: "Schatz" Waltz (with Stravinsky: Octet, Pastorale, Concertino, "Rag-time") – Boston Symphony Chamber Players (Deutsche Grammophon 463667).

* Shostakovich/Barshai: Chamber Symphony, Op. 110a [string orchestration of Quartet No. 8] (with Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 1) – I Musici de Montreal/Yuli Turovsky (Chandos 8357).

* Schubert/Mahler: "Death and the Maiden" (with Schoenberg: "Transfigured Night") – Norwegian Chamber Orchestra/Iona Brown (Chandos 9316).

* Avison: 12 string concertos after Domenico Scarlatti – Brandenburg Consort/Roy Goodman (Hyperion 66891).

* Mozart: "The Abduction from the Seraglio," "Cosí fan tutte" (Harmonie arrangments) – Berlin Philharmonic Winds (Orfeo 260931).

* Mahler/Stein: Symphony No. 4; Mahler/Schoenberg: "Songs of a Wayfarer" – Christine Brandes (soprano), Susan Platts (mezzo-soprano), Santa Fe Pro Musica, Smithsonian Chamber Players/Kenneth Slowik (Dorian 90315).