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Saturday, March 28, 2015

diminished Liszt

I first became aware of Liszt's piano sonata right around my brief stint as a maid at Holiday Inn. I remember listening to Slobodyanik's exciting performance on my boom box, which went from room to room with me on the cart. (Sad to say, Slobodyanik—young and just starting out on the LP cover—died of meningitis in 2008.) The sonata remains a great pleasure, and my interest was piqued last night to see that it was available on a new (to eMusic, anyway) release in a transcription for solo violin. Not even violin with piano, but solo violin, which puts it in some rarefied company of virtuoso works arranged for the four strings and bow: Liszt's Mephisto Waltz, Schubert's Erlking (calling for both piano and vocal parts to be at least suggested by the lone viol), not to mention solo guitar traversals of Dvorak's 'New World' symphony, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, and Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.

As I pondered paying $6.49 just to find out if she (Vera Vaidman) would make it all the way through, I checked to see if I could find something more to go on than the 30-second clip that consisted of silence, some applause, tuning, and perhaps the first note of the piece, and found the whole thing on YouTube. Viz:


Using my arcane chops, I extracted the audio and listened to it for a while as I went to sleep. The results were much like what I have found in the guitar hero versions mentioned above: large sections of the work are playable, at least to the extent that the melody can be carried along and some accompaniment sketched in or hinted at, but there are also places where the audience might plausibly expect more than two or so distinct lines and a chord here and there, and in these places, the guitarists—Larry Coryell on the Rite, and Kazuhito Yamashita on the others—seems to admit defeat and fall back on windmilling (I think this is called 'shredding') in hopes that the excitement of the rapid motion of fingers fanning strings will satisfy the listener that something musical is happening which conveys the composer's intention. I imagine that the performer can hear the correct notes in there, and expects that we will sort it out in our heads. Whether this is the case or not, I can't. It just sounds like someone punishing the instrument for not having 88 strings.

Thus my disappointment with Vaidman, who fell in love with the arrangement when she happened upon the sheet music, even though by this time the transcriber had had second thoughts on the fiendish difficulty of his work and produced a new edition that answered the criticisms of violinists in sanding down the hardest bits. With endearing quixotry, she would only be satisfied in conquering the extreme problems of the original, and I can't help but respect her for taking the hard way. As I say, there are whole sections that sound fine, but there are too many that don't work. As I started on it again this morning, I could detect a warning flag in the initial measures of the piece, where her intonation slipped a little (do I need to tell anyone how live performances home right in on any part you're not 100% certain of?), and when a real hell-section comes along, like the fugato (here set for pizzicato), the polyphony fails to come off.

So that came off of my iPod. It was a good try, and points for valor are awarded, but as a listener, valor isn't enough. I came here to meditate upon the transcription and the performance, and compare it to other solo string instrument transcriptions—the Erlking and Mephisto solos have been recorded very well by Rachel Barton Pine, among others (I don't know who else has recorded the Mephisto, but it was arranged by Nathan Milstein, who left many recordings)—and I was all set to suggest there are some pieces that should be left to larger instruments, when here came Giora Schmidt.


I don't know if he's playing the 'easier' version, but if he is, then it has everything the piece needs (well, apart from a piano, because I miss those big chords and some of the accompaniment) to sell itself, and with nary a wince. The pizzicato fugato sails by con brio—he puts the bow on the music stand and plucks away two-handed—and his intonation and tone are clear and confident all the way through. He's performing live, too, and I see from another video description that the music stand holds his iPad, from which he's reading the score. Did I mention that my big plan this year is to get a tablet of sufficient size to put my music into it so I can just put it on a piano and play from it? Anyway, the transcription clearly is playable, and more importantly, it sells itself to an audience.

So, there it is. I was going to write one thing, and I ended up writing another. I wholeheartedly recommend the second performance. If you've read down to here, send me money. Baby needs a tablet.

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