Near the end of his life, pianist Vladimir Horowitz told New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini that one of his greatest regrets was never having played Franz Liszt’s transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies in public. “For me, the piano is the orchestra,” Horowitz said. “I don’t like the sound of a piano as a piano. I like to imitate the orchestra — the oboe, the clarinet, the violin and, of course, the singing voice. Every note of those symphonies is in these Liszt works.” Horowitz played the transcriptions in private, believing that audiences would not understand the music. Tommasini quoted Horowitz, who said, “We are such snobs.”
Fortunately, the concert and recital scene in the 21st century has warmed significantly for remarkably detailed solo piano transcriptions of some of the greatest music literature. Koji Attwood, one of the world’s most highly esteemed pianists who also is a visiting professor in The University of Utah’s music school and is on the Gifted Music School’s faculty in Salt Lake City, has written more than 20 transcriptions, an eclectic, ambitious, fascinating set of orchestral and chamber music works.
The Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation’s virtual series of spring concerts continues with tomorrow’s (April 8) 7:30 p.m. launch of Schubert Transformed, featuring Attwood’s transcription of the composer’s String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, familiarity known as Death and the Maiden. Attwood will participate in a post-concert Q&A tomorrow and the concert will be available on demand, with purchased tickets, through May 8. This also is the Utah premiere of Atwood’s transcription.
Considered one of the most significant works in the string quartet literature, the four-movement piece, completed in 1824 but never performed in public during the remainder of Schubert’s short life, includes the music and variations as based on the lieder of the same title, which the composer set in 1817. The song Der Tod und das Mädchen, based on a poem by Matthias Claudius, is about a young woman who pleads with Death to pass over her. Incidentally, contralto Marian Anderson’s performance of this Schubert song is considered among the most definitive. Thus, as the lieder is the inspiration for the quartet’s second movement, this becomes, as Attwood explains, a “transcription of a transcription.”
String musicians and pianists know all too well the complexities of navigating the technical demands of Schubert’s writing. The fingering for string players can be awkward, even weird, in more than a few instances. One pianist remarked that fingers and joints must become like peanut butter to master the demands in his keyboard works. The Death and the Maiden quartet, which runs approximately 40 minutes, is no exception.
“I fell in love with it as a child,” Attwood says, adding that he wanted to experience it more actively not just as a listener. This transcription came relatively early in Attwood’s work with this format. He premiered this Schubert transcription at a Merkin Hall concert in New York City on January 30, 2007. Among his most memorable performances as a Yamaha artist have been in a castle as part of the Husum, Germany music festival, near the country’s border with Denmark, and in the Chapelle Royale Saint-Frambourg, part of the restored 13th century cathedral in Senlis, France. The acoustics surely must have been exceptional.
The quartet’s mood is monothematic. With the exception of the end of the second movement, when the music modulates to G major, the work sits entirely in the minor. Attwood says the first movement was the most challenging to transcribe. While Beethoven’s writing is well known for its integrative rhythmic structures, Schubert appears to make an even more convincing case in his own taut writing, as the work opens with the sensations of a daredevil amusement park ride. The triplet and dotted rhythms of the first movement reappear throughout the remainder of the work. Meanwhile, Schubert had reset his original lieder a fourth higher in the second movement, with a lot more motion as the variations become, more plainly, like a call and a response between Death and the Maiden. In acknowledging that the quartet was written seven years after the lieder upon which it is based, Schubert, at 27, greatly expanded the musical meaning of emotional tenacity in the second movement’s writing. It is astounding to think of Schubert’s late, most mature period unfolding just barely past his mid-twenties. The second movement’s variations echo in key points the experiences of the first movement’s daredevil momentum but then there is the trademark Schubertian move to the one gloriously serene, but brief, end in the major key. The remaining two movements pop with dance kinetics.
This particular performance of Attwood’s transcription allows for some visual effects that typically would not be accorded a concert hall performance. It was filmed on the Jeanné Wagner stage of the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts by Wonderstone Films, with sound engineering by Robert Abeyta.