Jura Margulis, piano
The pianist Jura Margulis, born in Russia, began his study of the piano with his father, the great pedagogue Vitaly Margulis. He subsequently became a pupil of Leon Fleisher in Baltimore, USA. Jura Margulis has won prizes at 12 international competitions. In addition to his world-wide solo concert activities, he has appeared in duo with Martha Argerich in Germany, the USA and Japan. On his new CD, Jura Margulis presents the art of the piano transcription in all its diversity. Original works from Bach through Gluck to Wagner and Caplet are transferred to the piano with extremely varied means and objectives. The interpreter himself also joins the ranks of arrangers, who include Busoni, Liszt and Sgambati, with three transcriptions of his own.
If pieces are viewed as materializations of a more abstract and molten idea, then transcriptions can be understood to reliquify the specific form and crystallize it anew, in a process that can reveal hidden potentials latent in the original work, and provide a welcome perspective on perhaps overfamiliar
masterworks. E.T.A. Hoffmann attributed the appeal of the transcription to the special listening strategy it invites: “the piano reproduces
a great work as a sketch reproduces a great painting, and the imagination brings it to life with the colors of the original.”1
A transcription, he implies, is not meant to be heard as a work divorced from its orchestral origins and newly “for piano;” but rather as an evocation of symphonic timbres. The fact that the original timbres are not really present is integral to the transcription’s power; their absence opens up a space fillable only by the listener, who must imaginatively reconstruct the missing dimensions.
Transcriptions thus encourage a particularly
active mode of listening. This is especially
true because the piano is not simply a transparent veil through which orchestral tuttis and brass fanfares shine; in the Lisztian,
virtuoso tradition of transcriptions, the piano also draws attention to itself qua a piano, with idiomatic runs and cascading octaves. The listener is encouraged to shift back and forth between the act of abstracting
away from the piano toward some imagined timbral realization, and the act of focusing in on the piano as the locus for new pianistic realizations of latent potential
in the original work.
The tradition of the transcription fosters a healthy collaborative spirit between performer
and composer that is particularly welcome at a time when the aesthetic value of authenticity, improperly understood,
has suppressed habits of innovation
and improvisation among performers. Transcriptions can be relatively tightly or loosely connected to the original, running the gamut from a bar-by-bar reproduction
to a free paraphrase based on the motivic material; this CD offers examples from both ends of the spectrum.
In Gluck’s 1774 expanded version of Orpheus and Euridice, the final scene of Act II opens with this melody, sung by a chorus extolling the eternal bliss in Elysium; a bliss from which Orpheus remains separate, because Euridice has not yet joined him there. Giovanni
Sgambati (1841–1914), a protégé of Liszt, crafted a diaphonous transcription that allows the tension between these two sentiments to speak perhaps even more purely than in the original, where the heavy physical presence of the chorus can burden
the listener’s imagination.
The D minor Chaconne remains the most transcribed and arranged of Bach’s instrumental
works. As a Chaconne, the piece consists of a set of variations over a ground bass. The four bar repeating bass pattern articulates a version of the Romanesca, a stepwise descent from the tonic to the dominant. Brahms, one of a long line of transcribers stretching from Felix Mendelssohn
to Leopold Stokowski, explained the work’s enduring appeal in a letter to Clara Schumann:
“To me the Chaconne is one of the most beautiful, incredible compositions. On one staff, and for a small instrument, this man pours forth a world full of the most profound thoughts and most powerful emotions… If one cannot avail oneself of the most outstanding violinist, perhaps the greatest enjoyment of the Chaconne is to be achieved in one’s mind. But this work also entices one to enjoy oneself with it in various other ways.”
Ferruccio Busoni’s (1866–1924) transcription,
premiered by the composer at a performance in Boston in 1893, provides
such an “other way,” one that takes advantage of the full spectrum of the late Romantic piano to unleash the Chaconne’s power.
Although Busoni’s transcription transforms
a violin work into one for piano, it evokes yet a third instrument. Busoni wrote that he composed “with the idiom of the organ in mind… This approach is justified by the significant content that is not expressed sufficiently by the violin, and because of the example of Bach’s own organ transcription (BWV 539) of his Violin Fugue in G minor.”
Franz Schubert’s (1797–1828) more than 600 song settings pair the voice and the piano as equal expressive partners. With his transcriptions,
Liszt sought to advance the reputation
of the then little-known Schubert. His adaptations develop Schubert’s highly expressive accompaniments and integrate the original vocal line into the piano part. When Liszt’s publisher reproduced the texts in full at the front of the score rather than within it, each word alongside its corresponding
melody note, Liszt protested vehemently. Schubert’s music creates the impression of flowing so inevitably from the text that even in voiceless transcription the music seems to speak the words.
Alongside his close friend Debussy, André Caplet (1878–1925) shared a fascination with the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. In The Masque of the Red Death, the literary basis for Conte Fantastique, a prince hosts a fantastic
masked ball in arrogant defiance of the “Red Death” plaguing the country outside
his castle’s iron gates. When the clock strikes midnight, the revelers notice a guest costumed in blood-smattered “habiliments of the grave,” with a corpse’s face for a mask. Horror spreads as the realization dawns that the wearer of the costume is the Red Death itself, and one by one the celebrants succumb to its grip. In Caplet’s original, the twelve strokes of the clock are represented by twelve knocks on the harp – an innovative compositional feature at the time.
Caplet originally wrote the piece for harp and string quartet, but later transcribed it
for harp and orchestra. As was characteristic
of Caplet’s style, the piece bypasses traditional thematic development in favor of a more improvisatory unfurling, resulting in a structure that to today’s ear sounds excessively erratic. This transcription takes the free approach of a paraphrase to the middle section, reassembling the compelling
core material into a tighter and more cohesive frame, while preserving bar-to-bar the structure of the outer sections, as well as the harp’s idiomatic arpeggios and chromatic glissandi.
Hearing Isoldens Liebestod (from the end of Tristan and Isolde) and the Trauermarsch (from Götterdämmerung), familiar pieces whose sonic imprint is so deep and so timbral, on the piano is an experience that foregrounds the notion of transcription.
It is virtually impossible (and probably undesirable) to listen to them “as” piano pieces; rather, the transcriptions seek to augment the power of the original by situating
the impact in the listener’s memory and imagination, in the process described by E.T.A. Hoffmann. Margulis thickened the harmonic texture as transcribed by Busoni to facilitate the evocation of the imagined orchestra. It is noteworthy that Wagner believed his operatic music would survive not in staged performance, but rather in transcription.
Liszt’s transcriptions were famous for their unsurpassable “pianization” of the originals;
rather than conscious evocations of an orchestral timbre, transcriptions such as the Danse Macabre represent a kind of alternative realization, exploring potentialities
latent in the original and drawn out only by the capabilities of the new instrument.
In contrast to other transcriptions of Liszt, for example Don Juan and Rigoletto, the Danse Macabre transcription is sparse and draft-like, providing just the scaffolding for a truly “pianized” realization according to the interpretation of the individual performer.
By building on Liszt’s frame, Margulis
continues the collaborative and creative tradition of generations of pianists.
E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Music Writings: Kreisleriana, the Poet, and the Composer, Music Criticism, ed. David Charlton, trans. Martyn Clark (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 251.