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The Art of Transcription

New York
Town Hall
03/05/2017 -  
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a (arr. Hekkema)
Nico Muhly: Look for Me (US Premiere)
Johann Sebastian Bach/Ferruccio Busoni: Chaconne in D minor, BWV 1004 (arr. Hekkema)
Johann Sebastian Bach: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 (arr. Hekkema)

Calefax Reed Quintet: Oliver Boekhoorn (oboe), Ivar Berix (clarinet), Raaf Hekkema (saxophone), Jelte Althius (bass clarinet), Alban Wesly (bassoon)

The Calefax Reed Quintet (© Roman Markowicz)

As a reviewer I usually attend concerts that I either like or not, or feel privileged to be in the audience or be very upset to miss them. To that last, smallest group belonged the performance of the Dutch ensemble Calefax Reed Quintet who performed in New York’s Town Hall in the series Peoples Symphony Concerts. I regretfully admit that prior to this concert the group was unknown to me. I first learned about them just two days earlier, when they played in a private event. Thus I was thrilled to have another chance to hear them in Town Hall, especially in a somewhat enlarged program that included Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and a short work by the American Nico Muhly (b.1981).

The unusual characteristic of this group is its combination of instruments. The traditional wind quintet encompasses flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and French horn. From its inception the Dutch group has used all reed instruments: oboe, clarinet, saxophone, bass clarinet and bassoon. Calefax players perform standing up and appear on stage in casual attire, without as much as matching shoes, let alone suits: that alone lowers the barrier between performers and the audience, which sees in them five nice, smiling, friendly guys with a bunch of strange looking instruments such as bass clarinet.

Needless to say all the repertory the group performs is in the form of arrangements, and those are done by its members who obviously know each other’s instruments inside out and know what is possible to achieve on each. The phrase art of transcription would apply when describing their efforts. This form of recreating always allows for something to be omitted from the original, and it is an art to avoid it. Thus far, as the saying goes, “no repertory is safe from them”. Arrangements include such pieces as innocent and straightforward as Mozart serenades; also piano works by Liszt and Beethoven, and some orchestral music of Gershwin. The transcribed compositions themselves might vary, but what doesn’t change is the excellence and ingenuity of the arrangers who come from within the group.

One may wonder: how can five players achieve the richness of a full symphony in a wind arrangement of the Nutcracker Suite? Well, what crossed my mind while listening to their imaginative re-creation was a different question: why don’t I miss the sound of a full symphony orchestra? For those readers perhaps already intrigued by my praise, the Overture is available on YouTube and should give some them some idea what am I talking about. The virtuosity of each and every player allows for negotiating such unwieldy or cumbersome moments as the fast scales in the “March” or sense of sultriness and sensuality in the “Arabian Dance”. I guess the success of their work should be attributed not only to the virtuosity of the players per se but also to the adaptability of an instrument like saxophone, which wonderfully blends in both its alto and soprano versions.

Commissioned by Het Koninklijk Concertgebouw & Calefax Reed Quintet, Nico Muhly’s nice ballade was next, played with the style the Dutch musicians are known for in their versatility and excursions into the jazz idiom. Muhly was not in the audience to receive applause. Well, sometimes people don’t show up for those occasions not only because there’s this bad, bad “ban” about which we intellectuals feel so strongly and really, really hate.

The Bach-Busoni Chaconne from Johann Sebastian’s Partita in D minor for Violin Solo was an example of a transcription to the fourth power. That last link of the solo violin work was taken by the great Italian virtuoso pianist and composer Ferruccio Busoni who heard in Bach’s original a richness of harmony and counterpoint that the violin version can only imply. Thus for a listener not acquainted with the original violin version – if there should even be such listeners! – this transcription would sound just like any of the other Bach-Busoni works that made Mr. Busoni famous. There is even a joke about someone asking Frau Busoni “By chance are you Mrs. Bach-Busoni?” It wouldn’t surprise me if that incident really happened. Hereby I allow Mr. Alban Wesly, who usually acts as Calefax’s MC, to use the story next time he introduces the wonderful transcription of the transcription. He is a very good announcer!

One had to scratch one’s head and admire the inventiveness of Mr. Wesly. What he has done with this already impossible-to-play-on-the-piano piece was staggering. The fact remains that the Calefax version of the Chaconne is as compelling and electrifying as its erstwhile version and transcription No.1. In the piano version, Busoni, in an attempt to simulate the sound of an organ, places lots of weight on the piano’s lower register. Though it seemed nearly impossible to achieve the same result with the instruments on hand –especially without a bass tuba! – the skillful use of the lower register of bass clarinet achieved the required results. The keyword in all those transcriptions seems to be both “illusion” and “substitution”.

After the intermission we were served the main course of the evening, Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Now, there’s hardly a piece in the classical music literature that has undergone more attempts to transcribe than the Goldberg Variations. The trend started a long time ago and most of those transcriptions have their own virtues. In addition to all possible combinations of instruments there are also the jazzed-up versions of, say, Jacques Loussier and Uri Caine. The version we heard March 5th occupies a very high position on that tall ladder of transcriptions, and its success rests not only on the excellence of the playing but perhaps even more so on sheer variety. Here between the four players – only Mr. Wesly, the bassoon player remained faithful to his instrument – we heard nine different-sounding instruments. They were English horn and oboe d’amore played by Oliver Boekhoorn, soprano and alto saxophone played by Raaf Hekkema (also an arranger of this transcription), B flat clarinet and E flat clarinets played by Ivar Berix, basset horn and bass clarinet played by Jelte Althius and finally the aforementioned bassoon. What this combination of instruments allows is such a variety of timbres and textures that to even to entertain any thought of boredom seems implausible. And when we add to it the Calefax musicianship and musicality...!

The Goldberg Variations as the Calefax imagines it starts in quite a theatrical manner when the soft sounds of the Aria intoned by oboe are heard over the audience still chattering as the musicians slowly appear from two sides of the stage, playing their parts from memory. Most of the variations are in two or three parts, thus allowing a pair or trio of instruments to utter their lines. Only a few segments, such as the Aria, the French Overture in the middle (Variation 16) or last Quodlibet (Variation 30) used the full resources of the group, and then the sound they created was just blissful. There are some monstrously difficult variations full of fast runs; here each of the players was able to show individual virtuosity. Some of it was simply astonishing because what is relatively uncomplicated on the solo piano/harpsichord (like alternating hands) becomes a nightmare when two or three player have to do it in sync. But should it really surprise me after I learned that for example Mr. Hekkema has in his repertory all 24 Caprices by Paganini and has played them in concert? By the way, Bach on soprano sax is nothing new; in his early recording of the Brandenburg Concertos Pablo Casals uses one instead of the trumpet in Concerto No. 2.

My only regret that afternoon? Whereas during less stimulating performances of the Variations, I often wish they were already over, this time I wished The Five would take all the repeats and demonstrate their imagination with each variation’s recurrence. But maybe that would be too much for the players and the audience alike.

We heard only one encore, but a total charmer far removed from the sobriety of the Bach. It was a song written by Louis Thomas Hardin (May 26, 1916 – September 8, 1999) known as Moondog, who has frequently collaborated with the Calefax. The song is called New Amsterdam – the original name for the city of New York – a catchy tune that featured Raaf Hekkema as crooner, and a very adept one too. I urge readers to check his name on Wikipedia. I was not aware of his many activities both in New York and later in Europe.

Yes, there are many concerts that inspire awe for the performance or performers, and that leave one enchanted, even moved, by the music. But only a very few can leave one with all of that plus a smile on the face.

Roman Markowicz



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