AOM Logo February 2000

Mendelssohn, Schubert/Liszt, Bach/Busoni: Songs Without Words

Murray Perahia, piano

Sony Classical SK 66511

Playing Time: 66:37

Marvin Segal

Cover Image The Mendelssohn pieces were, in spite of their title, conceived as piano works; their "songs without words" appellation is meant as a romantic description of their emotional and stylistic character, open to interpretation and often taken to allude to music with "suppressed" or "implied" texts, or to music "seeking a text." Most of the titles were not descriptive ones furnished by Mendelssohn himself, but were appended by his publishers after his death. There is no suggestion here of song transcriptions; these are piano pieces pure and simple, though they do constitute an attempt to distill and present certain essential song-like musical attributes.

The transcriptions of the chorales and lieder, on the other hand, represent pieces which were originally conceived with text and human voice in mind, but are here deprived of both. As presented, most of them, like the Mendelssohn pieces, are pianistic in style, but to the extent that this is true, they depart from their original character.

I'm definitely not a purist (if nothing else, my surly attitude toward original-instrument performances disqualifies me from that), but I am in general not fond of transcriptions. I do admit, though, that they often serve a useful purpose (they are the life-blood of high school bands) and that they can sometimes closely capture the spirit of the original or simply be beautiful as independent pieces in themselves. An example from this disk would be the Busoni treatment of Bach's Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme; Perahia plays it with such taste and sensitivity that I have to wonder whether I might have preferred this version to the original, had I come to know it first. The other chorales performed here are somewhat less successful in their pianistic incarnations, however, and Liszt's transcriptions of Schubert's lieder seem to miss the mark entirely. In particular, his reworking of Erlkönig, with its use of a different pianistic device to signify the voice of each of the story's characters, comes across as emotionally exaggerated, and sounds like the piano accompaniment to some old-time silent film melodrama.

With the Mendelssohn pieces, I have no quarrel whatever. They are what they are, and Perahia gives a fine account of them. In fact, the playing is first-rate throughout. I suppose it's possible that if I could somehow shed all preconceptions of what those transcriptions are supposed to be and simply regard them as independent pieces in their own right, I might simply be able to relax and enjoy the excellent performance and the good quality of recorded sound that prevails through the entire disk. Unfortunately, although I have tried my best to do just that, much of this recording still does not ring true.
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