Arrangements or Transfigurations = BACH: Prelude and Fugue in e-flat minor, BWV 853; MOZART: 6 Preludes and Fugues, K. 404a: No. 3 in d minor; BRAHMS: Piano Quartet No. 1 in g minor, Op. 25: Intermezzo; Intermezzo (orch. Schoenberg); STRAVINSKY: Three Pieces for String Quartet; Four Etudes for Orchestra; JANACEK: Mlada Suite for Wind Sextet; Mlada (trans. Maratka) for String Quartet – Artists below  – Praga Digitals SACD DSD 3501 32, 80:31 (5/26/17) [Distr. Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****: 

A series of selected works, from Bach forward, exploit the possibility of new sonorities in these masterly arrangements.

[Wilhelm Kempff, piano (Bach); Grumiaux Trio (Mozart)/ Arthur Rubinstein/ Members of the Guarneri String Quartet (Brahms); Chicago Symphony Orchestra/ Robert Craft/ Tokyo String Quartet (Stravinsky)/ London Symphony Orchestra/ Antal Dorati/ Prague Wind Quintet/ Zemlinsky Quartet]

Culled from over fifty years of recording history, 1961-2016, this disc, compiled by annotator and arranger Krystof Maratka, seeks to illustrate that great composers often like, venerate, and transform works by their predecessors. The musical premise – following the idea that all philosophy is merely a footnote to Plato – seems to be that all music evolves as a footnote to Bach. Wilhelm Kempff plays the meditative Prelude in e-flat minor from WTC I, BWV 853 (rec. 1961), whose dance-motif in the fugue proves no less melancholy in its woven chromaticism. Mozart had engaged in a detailed study of Bach’s work for his own arrangements for string trios in 1782, much at the suggestion of Baron van Swieten, chief librarian at the Court of Vienna in Berlin.
The staid figures of the d minor Prelude and Fugue have a rich sonority from the Grumiaux Trio (rec. 1967) despite their chaste countenance. Eva Czako’s cello often provides a deep foil to Grumiaux’s high tessitura, with the viola of Georg Janzer’s filling in the tenor. A rich mixture of string sonority, we know that such learned writing will peak in Mozart’s Divertimento, K. 563.

The Guarneri String Quartet spent many of its formative years in residence at SUNY Binghamton, where this writer often auditioned their work in rehearsal  and in concert. Three members – John Dalley, Michael Tree, and David Soyer – collaborate with veteran Brahms pianist Artur Rubinstein in 1967 to perform the Intermezzo from the 1861 Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1.  The Intermezzo projects a quizzical, mysterious air, changing its introspective mood to restrained jollity half-way through the movement but then returning to its cautious figures over the low ostinati and the cello’s deep song. Composer Arnold Schoenberg orchestrated the Brahms work in 1937 for Otto Klemperer and his Los Angeles Philharmonic, and in 1966 George Balanchine arranged the score for ballet at Lincoln Center in New York City. The 1962 recording by Robert Craft and the Chicago Symphony exploits the menace that lurks under the throbbing ostinati below the strings and woodwinds. The middle section, however, does enjoy a more serenade-like sonority. A true advocate of this orchestration had been Sergiu Commissiona, whom I interviewed in Atlanta, and who had taken his cue from his main instructor, Constantin Silvestri.

Igor Stravinsky conceived his Three Pieces for String Quartet in 1914, intended as a conscious rebuke of traditional quartet idioms and the stringed instruments themselves. Taking his cue from the Russian guttural sounds and motifs of peasant music, especially in his Les Noces, Stravinsky eschews anything like the strings’ capacity for legato. The Tokyo String Quartet (rec. 1987) intones the jerky, spastic, and deliberately dissonant aspects of the three movements with an acerbic relish. The British music-hall figure Tich inspired the “Eccentric” movement, much as Debussy found musical fodder in French and British vaudevilles. The last movement comes as a disturbing presence, a dirge-like Canticle, much of which sounds like a modal transposition of the Dies Irae.  Despite their anguish, the last 20 measures elicited great fondness from the composer himself. Arranged in 1928, the Four Etudes for Orchestra combine the Three Pieces for String Quartet with a moment from his Four Etudes for Piano, Op. 7.  The performance by the London Symphony under Antal Dorati (rec. 1964) highlights their forward-looking sonority, which at times we could mistake for Alban Berg. This rendition omits the final movement, “Madrid.”

Janacek’s 1924 wind serenade Mladi (“Youth”) came as a result of the composer’s desire to celebrate his early years at the Old Brno Monastery. The influence of French music, especially that of Debussy and Roussel, affects the modalities of this music, even beyond Janacek’s natural flair for Bohemian peasant rhythms and airs. The virtuoso writing permeates all parts, but in this performance by the Prague Wind Quintet (rec. 1999), we become alerted to the gifts of flute Jan Riedlbauch, Vlastimil Mares, clarinet, and Vladimir Klanska, French horn, particularly. The Vivace movement sports some fine playing by oboe Jurij Likin, supported by crisp articulation from bassoon Milos Wichterle. The string quartet transcription by Krystof Maratka (b. 1972) has a long explanatory note attached,in which Maratka explains how he used the scores of the Janacek string quartets as a template for the style, given the kinds of adjustments he had to make for a woodwinds to “become” stringed instruments. The Zemlinsky Quartet (rec. 2016, its first world-release) manages to imitate wind sounds as specific points – especially in the first violin Frantisek Soucek’s flute tone, and a more “symphonic” resonance in the cello part from Vladimir Fortin. The textures, naturally, have become clearer and more alert to the interior “antics” of the youth depicted in this often harmonically audacious piece.

—Gary Lemco