There was a time, in the first half of the 20th century, when concerts hall would resound with the resplendent sonorities of transcriptions of music from earlier times. Of course we can immediately think of Leopold Stokowski’s orchestral transcriptions of the organ music of J. S. Bach, the most famous of which would have been the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, so thoroughly exploited – in every sense of the word – by Walt Disney in his film, Fantasia. We can also remember a time when piano recitals would inevitably open with Bach-Busoni, Bach-Siloti, Bach-Liszt, Bach-Tausig - the list goes on.
In more recent times, with our awareness of, or obsession with, performance practice, or historically informed performances, transcriptions have been almost frowned upon as dated, if one is kind, or wrong, if one is not.
We forget that transcriptions have been regular practice since the time of Bach, who had no compunction in borrowing materials from other composers and rewriting it for a different medium. From a practical standpoint, we also must remember that in centuries past, the only way one gets to hear any piece of music is to play it yourself, which led to piano, four-hand, transcriptions of symphonic and operatic works. Franz Liszt was prolific in transcribing a plethora of works by other composers for solo piano – the nine symphonies of Beethoven, excerpts from Wagner and Verdi operas, and Schubert Lieder. Of course, many of these incredibly technically challenging works, goes far beyond the ability of most amateurs, and have found their ways into the repertoire of performing artists.
Zlata Chochieva has done music a great service with this latest recording – (re)creations – where she performs with great aplomb piano transcriptions by a range of composers. Some of the works in this album will be very familiar, at the same time giving us some real discoveries as well.
As she is such a great interpreter of the compositions of Sergei Rachmaninoff, it is perhaps no surprise that many of the works represented here are by that great composer and pianist. Indeed, on the very first track we hear Rachmaninoff’s astounding transcription of J. S. Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3 in E major, BWV 1006. If there needs to be a justification for a transcription, this is it. Rachmaninoff took Bach’s composition for a single melodic line and transforms it into a rich and pianistic masterpiece. Chochieva plays this music without apologizing for the richness of the modern piano sound, but respecting at the same time the quicksilver lightness that the violin could achieve. Her playing of the Gavotte brims with charm and good humour, while the Prelude and Gigue shows her understated virtuosity as well as her complete identification with Rachmaninoff’s pianistic idiom.
The album continues with more Bach – the first movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major, BWV 1048, the Siciliano from the Flute Sonata in E-flat major, BWV 1031, and the Tempo de borea from the Violin Partita No. 1 in B minor, BWV 1002, all in transcription by Ignaz Friedman. Again, Chochieva plays these works as piano pieces. That said, in the Brandenburg, she effectively highlights the interplay between the ripieno and concertino of Bach’s Concerto Grosso. In the familiar Siciliano, known to me only in the transcription by Wilhelm Kempff, this reworking by Friedman is much more in the 19th century vein. Chochieva identifies with this, and plays it, not so much in a perpetual motion kind of way, but more highlighting the beauty of the piano’s sonorities and harmonies implied. In Tempo di borea, the little dance bounces to life under her fingers, and her interpretation takes on a perfect balance between the vertical and horizontal.
Chochieva then turns to transcriptions by Franz Liszt of Lieder of Schubert and Mendelssohn. Her playing of the Schubert Lieder especially moved me; to my ears she really highlights the character and affect of each lied. Hearing these songs, I was drawn, not to the superhuman technical demands set down by Liszt, which of course is considerable, but towards the melodic genius of Schubert. Her playing of Wohin (S. 565, No. 5) conveys the sense of wide-eye wonder and innocence of our wanderer, not yet disillusioned by love lost. Litanei (S. 562, No. 1) was played with an apt sense of reverence. Under her hands, the water ripples in Auf dem Wasser zu singen (S. 558, No. 2), while the little trout dances in the rippling water in Die Forelle (S. 564) before meeting its final fate. In Ständchen (S. 560, No. 7), she plays the lied with a simple ardent quality, at the same time maintaining the buoyancy and forward motion of the music - a quality, forgive me, missing in the Horowitz recording.
The transcriptions of the three Mendelssohn Lieder are played with a disarming simplicity and directness. I feel that her playing of the beautiful Auf Flüfein des Gesanges (S. 547, No. 1) – translated in countless children’s piano books as “On Wings of Song”, is particular deeply felt.
One of the most difficult pianistic “stunts” has to be Rachmaninoff’s transcription of the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. When recording this work, Rachmaninoff himself reportedly did more than forty takes before finding one that satisfied him. Chochieva transcends Rachmaninoff’s pianistic hurdles, with nary a thought of its difficulties, and gives us a breathless and breathtaking performance of great flair and beguiling lightness – yes, one could almost see the fairies dancing. I heard Ms. Chochieva play this work in recital, and yes, it is just as electrifying.
The recording follows with more Rachmaninoff – his transcription of the charming Minuetto from Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suite No. 1, Op. 23bis, WD 40, where Chochieva highlights the composer’s melodic inventiveness, and squeezes out every ounce of Gallic charm from the music.
Chochieva then gives us a real rarity – Friedman’s transcription of the Tempo di Menuetto, the second movement from Mahler’s monumental Symphony No. 3 in D minor. One of Mahler’s most charming creations, Friedman’s ingenious transcription makes it sound completely like an idiomatic piano composition. In her deeply felt recreation, Chochieva gives us all the gemütlichkeit the music calls for, as well as guiding us into the many darker harmonic corners as well as quasi-hallucinogenic moments set down by Mahler.
We have two further transcriptions by Rachmaninoff – Tchaikovsky’s Lullaby, Op. 16, No. 1, and Mussorgsky’s Hopak from his comic opera, The Fair at Sorotchintsy. Chochieva’s performances really showcases Rachmaninoff’s uncanny understanding of the resources of the piano, as well as her own identification with the composer’s piano writing. Her comic timing in her playing of Hopak is impeccable.
The recording concludes with two transcriptions by Friedman. We hear first the beautiful Adagio in G minor by Giovanni Battista Grazioli, played with great style, depth of feeling, grace and simplicity. This thoroughly enjoyable disc ends with the first of Friedman’s own Six Viennese Dances, Tempo de Valse lente, after Gärtner, a perfect dessert after this delectable pianistic feast.
I have always been fascinated with the art of transcription – this transference of the same musical material from one medium to another. As much as it is necessary to have new interpretations of Beethoven and Schubert sonatas, this disc certainly makes a welcomed addition to the recorded literature, and Chochieva’s artistry makes a very strong case for the validity of transcriptions as a musical art form.
Zlata Chochieva played one of the best recitals of the concert season in Vancouver before life was put on hold because of the pandemic. I am certainly grateful for this new recording of “recreations”, which allows us to enjoy her pianistic art, as well as the musicality of her playing. Let us pray for an end to this manmade catastrophe so that we can once again join with each other to experience the joys and excitement of live music making.