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“As an arranger, nothing is safe from me,” confided famed cellist Laszlo Varga, for eleven years principal cellist with the New York Philharmonic, chamber musician, long time-teacher and avid arranger of over 50 works.
UNC-Greensboro, repository of the largest collection of cello music in the world donated by some of the world’s greatest cellists, honors the donors by arranging a three-day celebration of concerts, master classes, and presentations. The last celebration, in 2005, honored Bernard Greenhouse; the next, on February 16-18, 2007, will honor Varga, the eighth cellist to donate his collection to UNC-G’s Cello Music Collection
Last Saturday night, in Nelson Music Room of Duke University, we had the opportunity to sample four of Varga’s arrangements in a preview of next year’s Varga Festival. Cellist Brooks Whitehouse, faculty member at UNCG and the N.C. School of the Arts, and organizer of the Varga Celebration, joined with collaborative pianist (the current term for accompanist) James Douglass of UNC-G, to perform four of Varga’s arrangements for cello and piano. As is usual with such arrangements, some work, some don’t.
There are two principal difficulties in transcribing works for new musical forces: first, the overall timbre, or sound, of the original is necessarily changed – often radically; secondly, transcription often requires a change of key, with attendant octave displacements and other alterations that affect the tessitura of the work. In many cases, these obstacles can be overcome if one is transcribing within a genre (i.e. chamber music to chamber music for another set of instruments, or even orchestra to concert band)). But when the transcriptions make radical alterations in forces (i.e. chamber to orchestra or opera to piano solo) the results can be jarring. That being said, before the advent of recorded music, transcriptions were one of the ways music lovers became intimately familiar with works for large forces; they were also the way for such great concert virtuosi as Franz Liszt to wow audiences by turning a solo piano into a Wagnerian orchestra. In all of Varga’s transcriptions, the emphasis is naturally on the cello.
Whitehouse selected four types of transcriptions for his preview: Brahms’ Violin Sonata No.1 in G Major, Op.78; Franz Schubert’s Fantasy in F Minor, D.940, originally composed for piano four-hands; Béla Bartók’s Sonatina for piano; and Zoltán Kodály’s Dances of Galanta for orchestra. Each of these pieces presents a different challenge to the transcriber.
In his Violin Sonata, Johannes Brahms kept the piano part primarily in the middle and lower range, contrasting and balancing it with the high tessitura of the violin. In the transcription, which retains the original key, the piano part is unchanged and the ranges of the two instruments overlap. The octave displacements required from the cello to maintain its range detracted from the melodic flow. This muddies the melodic lines, entailing the loss of much of the contrast and detail.
The most successful of the evening’s works was the transcription of the Schubert Fantasy. In the original, Schubert’s writing is extremely dense, and by extracting one of the melodic lines and assigning it to the cello, the work became more transparent and easier to follow.
Béla Bartók’s Sonatina for piano of 1915 is actually a series of three folk dances, and Bartók himself, when transcribing them for orchestra in 1931, called it Transylvanian Dances. Considering that the original was a solo piano work, Varga’s version for cello and piano sounded natural and was performed with emphasis of the dance rhythms. That it is not Bartók’s most exciting effort in the field of transformations of ethnic music is not Varga’s fault.
Some transcriptions, however, just don’t cut it. Although, as Whitehouse announced from the stage, the Kodály transcription was one of Varga’s favorites, the most stunning aspect of the Dances of Galanta is the wonderful orchestral colors. Listening to the cello and piano transcription was, as one of us commented, like watching a Technicolor movie in black and white.
Whitehouse is a vigorous player with a big tone, but he had some intonation problems in his upper register. He had no difficulty keeping in balance with Douglass, who is a very sensitive accompanist and extremely careful not to drown his partner.
For more information on the upcoming Varga Celebration at UNC-G, go to www.uncg.edu/mus/cellocelebrations [inactive 11/09].