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Reviewed, Not Necessarily Recommended: Brahms Transcribed

available at Amazon
Brahms, Orchestrations by Schoenberg & Berio, Steffens / State O. Rhenish Phil. / Raiskin
cpo 777 356-2

Brahms’ First Piano Quartet, op.25 in G minor, was dubbed “Brahms’ Fifth Symphony” by the orchestrator—Arnold Schoenberg—himself. (By other accounts, it was the conductor of the premiere, Bruno Walter, who coined the term.) That’s not boasting, it’s quite accurate. For one, the symphony writing of Brahms in that marvelous, blustery quartet lends itself to the orchestral arrangement, and Schoenberg did a bang-up job in the orchestration which isn’t so much Brahms but Brahms catapulted into the 20th century of Mahler and Schoenberg himself.

There is an anecdote of Otto Klemperer, who had suggested to Schoenberg to arrange and orchestrate that quartet, premiering the Schoenberg orchestration of the Brahms Quartet in L.A. where one of the ‘Dragon-Ladies’ of the Board came up to him afterwards and proclaimed: “I don’t know what everyone’s problem is with that Schoenberg. I think that was quite beautiful.”* It is safe to say that she did not gain much insight into Schoenberg’s (actual) work, but at least she enjoyed his orchestration, which indeed – insight or not – any Brahms-lover will.

The result, despite Schoenberg’s insistence that he only ‘opened up the inherent possibilities’ of works of past masters, is a musical work of its own. Just listen to the last movement’s instrumentation which revels in surges of Hungarian color that Brahms would never have come up with. The quartet is no longer rarely heard, as it was in Schoenberg’s time, nor often played badly when it is (another of Schoenberg’s complaints and reasons for orchestrating it). But that does not negate the additional pleasure that can be gained from the orchestration.

Indeed, this monumental and stunningly beautiful work is good to have in any performance. A fine account has recently been offered by Robert Craft on Naxos—coupled with the re-working of the Monn cello concerto, which is more based on, rather than “transcribed from”, Georg Matthias Monn’s (1717 - 1750) work. The latest addition comes from cpo, Daniel Raiskin, and the State Orchestra Rhenish Philharmonic (Koblenz). It’s a lighter, not to say lyrical, performance, but neither as secure nor unashamedly bombastic as the Christoph Eschenbach’s RCA recording with the Houston Symphony (coupled with Schoenberg’s excellent Bach transcriptions of BWV 552, BWV 654, and BWV 631) on RCA (sadly oop). The finest sounding version currently available is probably Neeme Järvi’s on Chandos, because the London Symphony Orchestra delivers more of a punch and more vibrant colors than the Rhenish Philharmonic.

That said, the main attraction on this disc is not the Brahms/Schoenberg arrangement, but the Berio orchestral arrangement of the Clarinet Sonata op.120/1, commissioned by the Philharmonic Society of Los Angeles. Like Schoenberg, it’s a harmonically and melodically “straight” transcription, not a modern re-imagining of the work. Berio, no stranger to orchestrations and adaptations (Puccini’s Turandot, works by Schubert, Mahler, and Verdi), tackled this last major work of Brahms’ for reasons we don’t know. Iosif Raiskin speculates that the tinges of Mahler in late Brahms may have been a reason for the Mahler-loving Berio. Be that as it may, the result is a wonderfully graceful Brahms Clarinet Concerto. Quite different than the grandiloquent Schoenberg transcriptions—partly due to the very different source material, partly due to the airier orchestration.

Karl Heinz Steffens’ performance on the clarinet is, if anything, even better than the already admirable orchestral contribution in the Berio-Brahms. If you like the idea of transcriptions, if you like Brahms, if you don’t already have a recording of the “Fifth Symphony”, and if you like the clarinet (or if any two of these four points are true), this is probably worth seeking out.

* The same story also exists in a version where it was the manager of the L.A. Symphony who said the same thing, except substituting “melody” for “beauty”. I haven’t yet found out which one is more credible, for now I prefer the former.