Friday, March 12, 2010

Music I'm Listening To: An Old Friend in Someone Else's Skin

I had an odd experience today listening to the radio in the car. I felt like I had come face to face with an old friend in someone else's skin. The gestures were familiar, the sound of the voice exhilarating and evocative of shared past experience; I knew the person immediately. But there was something entirely new, something completely unknown--a very disorienting feeling. Still, it was an exciting feeling, creating an irresistible need to listen closely, to try to understand the changed form the familiar now inhabited--and to relate that back to the original, comparing.

This is a surprisingly taxing thing to do. It requires great concentration, and it forces a decision, a mental transformation. Either we abandon the old and accept the new (rarely easy), separating what is from what we remember it to have been, or we must reject the new outright. Some transformations go smoothly, others remain works in progress with uncertain outcomes.

For a moment, I thought I was listening to the Brahms Double Concerto (for violin and cello). Then immediately I thought I was listening to the Brahms Violin Concerto. Next, I thought I was simply listening to one of the two Brahms piano concertos, as the solo instrument was most certainly a piano, not a violin or a cello--but none of these ideas quite made sense. As I was listening to the piano, I kept hearing the music as it seemed it ought to have been--played instead by a violin. The music was both eerily familiar and new at the same time. Had this been Vivaldi or Bach, I don't think the confusion would have been so deep. I drove the long way home, waiting for the music to finish, eager to hear who and what I was listening to--although, by the time the music was over, I had come to the only conclusion that made any sense: this was a transcription for piano of the Brahms Violin Concerto

And so it was. I was listening to Johannes Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 3 [sic], arranged by Dejan Lazic (Dejan Lazic, piano; Robert Spano conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra; Channel Classics CCS SA 29410.) This is a new disc, released March 9, 2010.

Brahms wrote only two piano concertos, but Mr. Lazic has conjured another one for us. According to what I've been able to find, Lazic has left the orchestral score untouched, but he has re-conceived the solo violin part for piano and written new cadenzas.

It's surprising how well the piece has made the transition from a concerto for stringed instrument to a piece featuring piano. It's virtually impossible not to hear the sound of bow on string in certain passages, in part because they are so familiar to the ear, but also because, having been conceived for violin, they naturally take advantage of the strengths and peculiarities of that instrument. It's hard to convert cantabile passages for violin into music for what is essentially a percussion instrument without doing them some violence, but Lazic's transcription is extremely persuasive. Only in a few places did I find myself longing for the scrape and grit of the string--only in a few places did I find it impossible to abandon the old friend for the new. All in all, a remarkable creation. I wonder if Brahms would have minded? Recommended.


  1. Fine. Where are the download links?

  2. I'm afraid I don't understand. What download links? I was just commenting on a piece of music I had heard....


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