Elgar in Transcription

by Glenn on October 5, 2016

In the days before the gramophone, music was a be-there-for-it proposition. The experience of listening to music wasn’t immediate and portable as it is today—it was live, and only live, which is not to discount the value of representations of music such as memory of and critical engagement (both verbal and written) with performed music after the fact.

The fact is, if you wanted to hear music, you had to be where music was being played.

And if someone said they were going to play some music, it meant they were physically going to play music on an instrument.

Today, when someone says I am going to play some music, that could mean they are going to pick up an instrument and play, but most of the time, though, it means they are going to play a recording of some music, which is an altogether different thing.

It’s difficult to imagine the world before recordings, let alone this current of world of music streamed to you wherever you are. Back then, if you wanted to hear something outside the concert hall, you had a couple of realities.

In the case of solo or chamber music, if it was music you yourself could play or if you knew people who could play it, then you just needed the printed music, the instrument(s), and time.

The symphony, though, was another story. If you had the itch to hear, say, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, then you needed to gather together not just a few friends, but dozens, in a large enough space. Again, it’s difficult to imagine the world when the only music that could be heard was live music as it was being performed.

The piano transcription was a compromise. If you wanted to hear a symphony outside the concert hall, then you simply needed a piano transcription of that symphony, a piano, and a performer. Franz Liszt, for example, created transcriptions of the nine Beethoven symphonies.

I don’t know much about the history of the piano transcription as a genre, but I imagine that the beginning of the gramophone age made them, at least eventually, somewhat irrelevant. Why listen to a recording of a transcription when you may hear the actual work for which it is a substitute? And so it’s interesting to see the odd recording of a piano transcription made these days. It seems anachronistic at the very least.

Today, we ostensibly don’t “need” the piano transcription because our ability to “hear” a symphony can happen any time any place, at least in a first world country. (Quotes around need because the act of listening to it must be fairly high on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs; quotes around hear because a philosophical argument can be made that says you are not actually listening to the music but to a representation of it. That’s for another time.)

So, if we don’t actually need the piano transcription any longer, how interesting in this digital age that two recordings have been made of a piano transcription of Sir Edward Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 in A Flat Major.

The first one is by David Owen Norris in a release from 1990. It was labeled on the CD jacket as “World Premiere Recording.”


Mark Bebbington recorded the second one in a recording made on 21 & 22 August 2006.

In the past week or so, I’ve listened to them both. I’m certain that there is limited appeal for them, but I was drawn to them as a devotee of Elgar’s First.

Elgar’s First Symphony premiered in 1908 and wouldn’t be recorded until 1930, by the composer.1 The popularity of the symphony meant there was sufficient demand for a transcription. An organist, Sigfrid Karg-Elert, was charged with creating a piano transcription which was released in 1909.

Karg-Elert has my respect for doing a phenomenal job of capturing this music. It’s an impossible job, really, both Karg-Elert’s job of transcribing the music and then anyone playing it at a professional level. Elgar’s First is a complex work. Among its virtues is wonderful orchestral coloring, which benefits from the inclusion of harp and a large percussion section to a large orchestra. That’s a lot to try and bring to life with two hands and a keyboard.2

The main virtue of listening to this (or any) transcription is that you hear the music differently. The transcription captures the lines of the music. It is more transparent and essential.

I enjoyed both recordings. And since I’m not a piano player I will avoid critical judgments of either recording. But here are a few observations.

Mr. Bebbington’s recording (the newer of the two), includes on the disc the first recording of a piano sonata by Alan Bush (1900–1995), which was interesting to hear. Written in 1921, it clearly is modern without going the atonal route. Mr. Bebbington’s playing of the symphony is wonderful—clean and precise. And I wonder if it’s the better recorded of the two CD’s.

I have a fondness for David Owen Norris’ recording. I’ve had it for years. It was interesting to return to it after listening to the version by Mr. Bebbington. The slow movement—Adagio—is what does it for me. I love how much time Norris takes through this movement. (Nearly 2′ longer than the Mr. Bebbington.)

I said that Mr. Bebbington’s was the better recorded. Perhaps I should say I prefer the sound of that recording. The David Owen Norris recording sounds a little boxy. Or perhaps it is the piano, itself, which sounds like an older piano. It could simply be the preparation of the two pianos, though. To my ears, Mr. Bebbington’s piano has a brighter, more modern sound. Mr. Owen Norris’ has an old world quality about it. There must also be a difference in terms of space where the recording was made—Mr. Bebbington recorded in Symphony Hall, Birmingham. I am unsure of the provenance of Mr. Owen Norris’s recording.

The Bebbington recording seems easier (at least more inexpensive) to acquire at this point.

For purposes of comparison (and in the spirit of fair use), here are a couple of moments from the adagio, actually the beginning and the end.

Here is the opening of the adagio as recorded by André Previn and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra:

Here is how David Owen Norris plays this in transcribed form:

So much space, taking even more time than the orchestral rendition.

Here is the approach by Mark Bebbington:

The conclusion of the movement is just sublime. Here it is in its original form, again with Mr. Previn and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Something worth noting: those string swells in there are impossible to reproduce on the piano.

Here is how Mr. Owen Norris presents this moment:

And here is Mr. Bebbington’s performance of the same conclusion:

I wonder if David Owen Norris is somehow hearing the original in his head as he is playing. It’s like he is leaving room for those string swells, even though they never appear. But your imagination fills them in.

Something I’ve noticed in myself is what I call primacy of interpretation, which simply means that the recording we hear first often becomes the standard by which we judge the others. If I didn’t have a history with the recording by David Owen Norris, would I prefer it? Hard to know.

Both recordings demonstrate marvelous playing and sensitivity. And both recordings are brilliantly-played renditions of a glorious composition.



1I’ve said that piano transcriptions were a kind of compromise. I suppose one should note that that first recording—and others from that age—have their own compromises including unconventional tempos (to get the music to fit within the constraints of the recording medium), greatly reduced strings sections, a tuba to double the string basses, and often strange orchestral balance. All this besides the actual sound of the recording.

2Foreshadowing: I am expecting a recording of Elgar’s First transcribed for organ to arrive any day now. I can’t wait to hear how feet and the colours (British spelling since it is the organ at Gloucester Cathedral playing Elgar—hard to get more English than that.) change the experience.










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