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Thursday, 2 February 2012

Colin Matthews or Does the world need more orchestrations?

More views of - or after - Cambridge Film Festival 2011
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

3 February

I wonder what Colin Matthews would say if I commissioned another composer to orchestrate one of his very fine string quartets¹...

Presumably, to be consistent, Matthews would just have to go along with it, for, if he did not, what I heard on Radio 3 in mid-December would seem to be hypocrisy :

For the concert, in the Afternoon Performance slot, featured what the web-page describes as 'exquisite versions' of six of Debussy's preludes (three in each half), including such prominent ones as 'The Girl with the Flaxen Hair' ('La fille aux cheveux de lin') in the first part, and 'The Submerged Cathedral' ('La cathédrale engloutie') in the second. (Whether 'versions' is a choice of word that came from Matthews, I do not know.)

Now, I must have been very busy with what I was doing - and I was at work on something - or even asleep in my wakefulness, because, although I heard the concept announced (and marvelled, later, when told that all 24 preludes had been given the same treatment²), I failed to identify either piece that I have named (and I couldn't have missed them both). All that I actually registered was an inundation rather akin to that which did for the cathedral - it all sounded like some murky seascape, and did not sound unlike Debussy in that regard, but I cannot say that it added, for me, in a helpful to what Debussy wrote in 1910 :

Oh, the audience at City Halls in Glasgow seemed appreciative enough, but I do wonder what they had gained from the experience. For I cannot honestly say that, even in an exercise to challenge the too familiar³, these preludes are calling out to be listened to in a different way. (And, for that matter, maybe The Planets didn't need Matthews to produce a Pluto - although I believe that, since he wrote it, it is no longer deemed a planet.)

As it is, Mussorgsky's piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition may stand as part of the virtuoso repertoire (though one hardly ever hears it broadcast) and, I would equally argue, was in no need of embellishment, that ever-present arrangement by Maurice Ravel (in which, admittedly, 'The Great Gate of Kiev' is very powerful and stirring)⁴ is what many people probably only ever hear, and miss out on the beauties of the original suite.

Mussorgsky wrote it in 1874 as a tribute to his artist friend Viktor Hartmann. Without what Ravel did (and Henry Wood apparently withdrew his own orchestration, made in 1915, because he thought Ravel's version superior), many people would not know of this work, but do they ever, in fact, hear it, if they never come to a knowledge of the piano original ?⁵

Well, none of us chooses what he or she is remembered by - the successful writer, who had something like forty West End hits to his name, is thought of as having written Winnie-the-Pooh, after all.

Postlude³ :


¹ As, having heard it played live, Mahler rather pointlessly seems to have done with Schubert's String Quartet No. 14 in D minor (amongst other works) - he does not take liberties, thankfully, but what is gained by having more instruments to produce the sound, when that is not what the quartet, in my view, is about ?

(According to Michael Kennedy's book about Mahler, that arrangement, although one of two made in Hamburg, rankled with the orchestra in Vienna when he took up the baton, because they were viewed as complicit in what he had done with the likes of Beethoven and Schubert in these arrangements. I believe that some reckoned that Beethoven had known well enough how to orchestrate his Symphony No. 9, without an extra little beefing up here and there.)

² The Radio 3 web-page says that they were 'orchestrated for the HallĂ© Orchestra between 2001 and 2007.

³ And, to chip away the veneer on Beethoven's Symphony No. 6, I found Liszt's piano transcription very rewarding. His other such works, including the concert paraphrases, similarly endear themselves to me.

⁴ And there are at least twenty others, including one by Vladimir Ashkenazy (in 1982) that takes issue with what Ravel did (in 1922, commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky).

⁵ Even Night on a Bare Mountain is usually in the edition by Rimsky-Korsakov, and, for Fantasia (1940), Stokowski orchestrated it afresh.

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