In performance: Academy of St. Martin in the Fields
Transcriptions for string orchestra are out of balance
by Joan Reinthaler
Only Grieg and Schubert emerged unscathed from their airings as transcriptions for string orchestra in the program that the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields brought to the George Mason University's Center for the Arts on Sunday. Grieg himself had rethought his "Holberg" Suite after writing it originally for the piano, and the piano part of the Schubert Arpeggione Sonata is inconsequential enough to be taken on by almost any instrumentation without much loss of clarity or character. Director/violinist/violist Julian Rachlin played the role of the solo arpeggione (a long-obsolete cello-guitar hybrid) on the viola with warmth and the sort of lyricism so intrinsic to Schubert's music.
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But Piazzolla's "Four Season of Buenos Aires," even in a string transcription as well-conceived as Leonid Desyatnikov's, loses the edginess and some of the wildness that the original quintet of violin, piano, electric guitar, double bass and bandoneón can project. With its huge bag of technical tricks -- slides, abrasive above-the-bridge scratchings, percussive plucking and thumping, and musical tricks (including snatches from Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons," the Pachelbel Canon and echoes of all sorts of jazz, tango and blues clichés) -- the transcription was great fun and clearly the hit of the evening. Still, it seemed like a tamed-down version of the original. Rachlin as soloist and his Academy forces, however, played it with engaging humor and enormous energy.
This left Beethoven and the "Kreutzer" Sonata in an unaccustomed role as the evening's biggest loser. Beethoven did not intend the piano as an accompaniment in this piece. He meant it to be a partner and he meant its unique combination of percussiveness and characteristic sonority to contrast intensely with the sound of the violin. Recasting the piano part for strings erases this contrast entirely and, in the case of the "Kreutzer," resulted in confusion and imbalance. In becoming a soloist instead of a partner, Rachlin had to work too hard to be heard, and a lot of lyricism was lost in the effort.
-- Joan Reinthaler
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