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23.2.2017 Feed


The orchestral Debussy transcriptions by Colin Matthews are even “too good”


This concert begins with Colin Matthews’ transcriptions of the Debussy Preludes and ends with Ravel’s transcription of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. How would you describe a good transcription: one that could have been the composer’s own, or even something more?

Matthews’ transcriptions are even a tad “too good”. He did them with such precision that they are more Debussyan than Debussy himself. Every note, timbre and articulation is carefully premeditated – Debussy himself would have been a little more perfunctory. Piano pieces seldom contain textures of the kind you commonly find in orchestral ones. Which is why, for example, it’s hopeless trying to orchestrate any Beethoven piano sonata, and why the piano transcriptions of orchestral works often sound jam-packed and artificial.

The most important thing is for the orchestrator to know how to allow for the effect of the piano’s sustain pedal; this applies especially in the case of Debussy. To some extent this is maybe precisely why Matthews has taken quite a few liberties with the tempos; according to the metronome marking, La fille aux cheveux de lin, for example, is now much slower than Debussy’s original for piano. This radically alters the character of the piece but gives the impression of a piano pedal pressed right down.

As for Ravel’s Pictures at an Exhibition transcription: it has tended to be criticised as a matter of course, but in my opinion it likewise works extremely well most of the time. If we compare Matthews and Ravel, we must also remember how greatly the original piano textures differ. The Pictures at an Exhibition are character pieces, as are Debussy’s Preludes, but Mussorgsky’s material is more like a block, like a plank hewn with an axe. The orchestrator of Debussy must be familiar with Debussy’s own style of orchestration, but with Mussorgsky, all instrumentation devices are permissible. The music of Mussorgsky is, on the other hand, so colourful and provides so much food for the imagination that maybe no transcription can be totally satisfactory. Its strength lies in its Beethovenian, untamed ruggedness. And it is precisely because it is rugged that many well-meaning composers wish to fiddle and meddle with his music. This persistent mania partly explains the vast number of transcriptions, from pure orchestral versions right up to ones for four tubas, 44 pianos or a military choir. Ravel nevertheless succeeded extremely well in his orchestration, because he possessed an exceptional understanding of Mussorgsky’s Russian soul and combined it with his own masterly command of instrumentation. It is generally thought that Russia took Paris by storm in the 1910s with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe, but it had actually done so long before that, and the relations between France and Tsarist Russia were in fact very close. Ravel was personally acquainted with Rimsky-Korsakov, and he had a clear conception of the Russian orchestral world. Ravel may have been a refined, reserved aristocrat and a collector of clocks, but he felt a closer affinity for the emotional Russian world than might be imagined.


This concert also features a visualisation by Riitta Nelimarkka of the Debussy Preludes. What are your feelings about combining visualisation and music?

No way is it an easy combination. In itself, music always evokes strong visual associations. But what happens when we are specifically served a visual stimulus? Can the viewer/listener perceive both equally, or, as is often the case in things like crossover projects, does one genre consume the other? How do you balance these elements? In this concert we are trying to seek some answers. There will probably be as many answers as there are people in the hall. Riitta’s art often incorporates veiled references to art history, and thought-provoking layers and themes just as in Debussy’s Preludes. For the visual artist, the Debussy Preludes are especially rewarding in that the titles are somewhat ambiguous.

Some of the paintings by Viktor Hartmann on which the Pictures are based still exist. Listening to the music of Mussorgsky, one might expect to see huge frescoes, but the original paintings are not. They are actually quite humble drawings but they fired Mussorgsky’s astonishingly modern imagination. “Baba Yaga”, for example, is a quaint clock with a pointed roof, a stylisation of the hut on fowl’s legs where Baba Yaga lived in the Russian fairytale. But Mussorgsky the composer immediately had visions of the heated chase to catch the poor witch.

The suite ends with the splendid Great Gate of Kiev, in which the promenade theme tying the work together is finally transformed into a mighty veneration of friendship, life and art. This work is yet another reminder of the enormous impression art made on people in the 19th century; like Mussorgsky, they might often be utterly overwhelmed by visions aroused by, say, an art exhibition or a book.


Why is the fifth piano concerto by Serge Prokofiev so seldom performed?

Some time ago, when I opened the score, it occurred to me that I had never actually heard the concerto, to say nothing of conducting it. It is, I have to say, not readily accessible. The form of the movements is, on closer inspection, in fact very balanced and carefully thought out, but the first impression is to some extent chaotic. I think the tempos are too fast, so the musical material and its meaning remain unclear to the listener. A calmer tempo may help us to understand that the music is nevertheless not altogether without head or tail. For me at least, the fifth concerto has proved to be a fascinating pointillist-futuristic journey.

As a young man Prokofiev was, like Stravinsky, charming and clever but crazy. I’m not quite sure what then happened to him. Stravinsky always adopted a new style on entering a new stage in his life, but Prokofiev never gave his musical grammar a clean sweep; he just went on paring it down and down. The fifth concerto is not even a very late work, but it already reveals a much more enigmatic composer than one might expect from the works of his early period.


Interview by Lotta Emanuelsson
Translated by Susan Sinisalo