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Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Transcribed for solo piano by Carl David Stegman (1751-1826)
Symphony No. 92 ‘Oxford’ (1789) [23:25]
Symphony No. 75 (1779) [22:50]
Symphony No. 44 ‘Trauer’ (1770-71) [22:07]
Ivan Ilić (piano)
rec. 2019, Potton Hall, Dunwich, UK
CHANDOS CHAN20142 [68:42]

Ivan Ilić has been opening our eyes and ears with his ‘Reicha Rediscovered’ recordings for Chandos (review ~ review), and he continues his travels through previously unrecorded piano repertoire in these three Haydn symphonies. Transcription was the best means of distributing and playing orchestral, choral and operatic works by the great composers, and with the evolution of the piano into an effective solo instrument by the turn of the 19th century innumerable examples appeared, with publishers keen to make money from the wider domestic amateur music market.

These Haydn symphonies were among a number published by Simrock of Bonn, better known as Beethoven’s publisher. Carl David Stegman was a singer and composer who achieved some success in Hamburg in the 1790s, moving to Bonn in 1811 and probably making these transcriptions at Simrock’s request between 1811 and 1814. Ivan Ilić’s scholarly booklet notes give plenty of background to this and the three symphonies recorded, as well as a nice story about how the scores came to be discovered in a dusty old box, and how these versions came to be so well received by audiences that this recording is the result. “It is unclear to me whether these transcriptions were ever meant to be played as concert repertoire, in public…” Possibly not, and there is always the argument as to whether, with our shelves groaning with recorded versions of the orchestral originals of these symphonies, we actually need recordings of any alternative arrangements at all.

My argument in these cases is almost invariably ‘why not?’ A solo piano version of an orchestral work is rarely if ever likely to be an improvement on the original, but if the result is a new and different experience and a creation of new repertoire for the piano, then where indeed is the problem? Stegman’s arrangements are idiomatic and luminously translucent. He wouldn’t have had to resort to Lisztian textures in any case, but just listen to the pianistic solutions found in the first few minutes of the Oxford symphony and you know you’re in for a treat. Taking into account the limitations of the piano with regard to sustain when compared to strings and winds, and leaving aside some of the demands of full tutti orchestral range and timpani, Stegman reduces everything to its essence; creating a ‘chamber’ version of the music and then developing its musical content with admirably approachable but sometimes quite virtuoso pianistic content. What we end up with are in effect new piano sonatas on a Schubertian scale, but very much in Haydn’s own character as a composer for piano. There are inevitably some moments where you can feel the orchestral original taking longer over transitions and development where dynamic variation and exchange between instrumental groups extend certain passages. These would doubtless have been more compact if Haydn were conceiving these works as piano originals, but Stegman is quite free in his interpretations. Listen to the Cantabile second movement of the Oxford symphony and you’ll hear how he misses out the bass line in the main theme opening, keeping things light for the lyrical right hand and saving his lower octave weight for the more dramatic development sections further on.

These excellent transcriptions are full of these kinds of detail, and you can have lots of fun comparing orchestra with piano and enjoying a skilled artist’s solutions for music with which he had a clear and abiding affection. Ivan Ilić’s performances are of course highly sensitive and appealingly lively, creating plenty of contrast but without any kind of artificial forcing of an orchestral sound from the Potton Hall Steinway D. These are concert performances of chamber music scores, and very much in scale to the realistic ambitions of both publisher and arranger.

Dominy Clements

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