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Recent Transcriptions..


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There currently seems to be an increased enthusiasm for transcribing major orchestral symphonic repertoire for the organ. Recital programmes have started to include these as have recordings along with copious notes explaining the processes involved in 'reducing and reassembling' the material for a totally different medium. Indeed not so long ago I heard a stunning and virtuoso performance of an arrangement of the last movement of Mozart's Jupiter symphony given by its arranger on a well known (and quite controversial) organ in a major Paris church - I also have an amazing recording of Mahler played on the organ at Gloucester Cathedral. From an immediate (and unashamedly organist's) point of view experiences that were (and in the case of the recording continue to be) tremendous yet from a purely musical stand point I have a sneaking feeling that I would have felt more fulfilled listening to a live orchestra or a decent recording of the music in its original form.


It would be interesting to know what opinions are on this - respected musicians have been and are obviously spending much time and exercise (albeit for the use of the few who can probably cope with the standard of performance needed to do the music justice) transcribing yet for what end I am tempted to ask. Is it to enable listeners to hear the piece in a new way, is it to provide more 'new' and challenging repertoire, is it to prove a point or is it purely an academic exercise to stretch the skills of the transcriber, his/her laptop and the latest version of Sibelius? OK Lemare et al did similar in times past but I am not really thinking of this - likewise the 'town hall' or 'lollipops' type tradidtions with pieces like the Flight of the Bumblebee or chunks of Nutcracker popping up - this I see as something very different - perhaps more obviously for entertainment. Transcription has always been present but it is these more recent trends that interest me.




.........just off to have an indulgent half hour playing through the arrangement of V W's Tallis Fantasia by a respected commentator on here!

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When I was a student, there was a general line that transcription was ok up to about the time of Bach, because techniques and textures did not vary too much according to instrument or ensemble. After that, as orchestras became bigger and orchestration more elaborate, straight transcription became more complicated and organs changed to accommodate new tastes.


As is well-known, organ transcriptions were often the only way for many people to hear orchestral works. Many organists' repertoires contained more transcriptions than original works, particularly in Britain, where there was little original composition of any worth. In France, where the organ developed in an 'orchestral' way, one can see little difference between many original organ works and contemporary transcriptions. There is, for example, an interesting collection - I have seen several copies over the years - of transcriptions of early 20th century pieces made by Leonce de St. Martin. It includes a "Blues" and an "Habanera".


One generation tends to rebel against the previous one. It didn't take me long to stop feeling guilty about liking either romantic organs or the repertoire they were built to play. I think that we are much more open-minded these days about what constitutes a fine instrument and what one should or shouldn't play on it. Also, we try to bear 'authentic' sounds in mind, whereas up until the nineteenth century, anything old was considered old hat and at one point in the twentieth century anything outside a certain period was considered bad taste.


The best theatre organists were wizards at playing transcriptions. Remember Quentin McClean's Rhapsody in Blue? And some years ago I heard Nigel Ogden give a stunning performance of Khatchaturian's Sabre Danceon the ex-Tonic Cinema compton at Bangor Academy, Co. Down.


Of my forays into making transcriptions, most were renaissance dances, which don't need much transcribing. I also did the Henry Wood Fantasia on British Sea Songs, which relies more on appropriate melody stops than anything else. Someone wrote many years ago that the RVW Tallis Fantasia would make a good organ piece, and I finally got round to finishing it in 2010, the centenary of its first performance. It has the advantage, organ-wise, that there is a lot of very sustained writing, which of course the organ does very well. I've also played the Fantasia on Greensleeves from the piano score, bearing the orchestral sound in mind. I wonder why no one ever transcribed the whole piece (I think Sumsion did the truncated version in OUP's VW album). I rather fancy trying the passacaglia from the Fifth Symphony, but I haven't got a full score.....

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