MESSING WITH SOMEONE ELSE’S MUSIC is a time-honored tradition going back many centuries and giving us many a masterpiece, typically in the form of a set of variations. The French Renaissance toe-tapper “L’homme arme,” was pounced upon by composers of religious works, who would be paid back by such 20th-century philanderings as when Joe Hill re-lyricked the hymn “Sweet Bye-and-Bye” as the pro-union song “The Preacher and the Slave” (“Work and pray/Live on hay/You will eat/In the sweet bye-and-bye.”)
The haunting chord progression of the dance tune called “Folia” inspired hundreds of works, particularly from Baroque-era composers. Corelli based the last of his Op. 5 violin sonatas on it, a piece that in turn was rendered for orchestra by Geminiani and variated for piano by Rachmaninoff. (Check out a list here of other such works.)
But variations have more to do with chord changes and rhythmic ideas, as Bach proved with his Goldbergs. What about extensively rewriting a work?
That’s more of a 20th-century-and-beyond conceit. Rachmaninoff couldn’t seem to help himself; when he transcribed the Preludio from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3, he re-cast it in a wonderfully re-harmonized setting with filigree that would have made Art Tatum proud.Although it seems to be one of the few works into which Rachmaninoff didn’t slip the “Dies Irae,” violinist Eugene Ysaye took care of that with his own Violin Sonata No. 2, the first movement of which, marked “Obsession; Prelude,” fragments elements of the Bach piece before delivering them into the judgmental lament. Luciano Berio and Paul Hindemith shared strong-enough Bach worship to borrow his forms, but the resultant works are very much their own.
Unlike the theme-and-variations-with-Hollywood-love-melody-and-inevitable-Dies Irae version by Rachmaninoff, Witold Lutoslawski wrote his Variations on a Theme by Paganini as a faithful re-creation of the original, matching Paganini’s pyrotechnics with a four-handed piano virtuosity, which edges it into the re-composition category without quite letting go of the original.
If you’re not familiar with Gaspar Sanz’s Suite Espanola, you might not notice that the multi-movement, 17th-century guitar piece forms the basis of Joaquin Rodrigo’s Fantasia para un Gentilhombre, written for Segovia in 1954. That’s because the material is so charmingly woven into Rodrigo’s familiar voice, familiar from his Concierto de Aranjuez, especially, that you easily could think he’d simply found himself in a Baroque kind of mood. But compare it to the Sanz original and it reveals itself as an excellent and original tribute.
When Rodion Shchedrin decided in 1967 to adapt themes from Bizet’s Carmen as a ballet for his terpsichorean wife, Maria Plisetskaya, he limited his orchestral forces to strings and percussion and wove the themes into an original work (with a wonderful joke at its core), not unlike the violin showpieces by Pablo de Sarasate and Franz Waxman, but without the need for a solo instrument to dominate. And it’s a tribute to the success of his re-working of the material that the Soviet Culture Ministry banned the work immediately after its premiere, terming it (wait for it!) “disrespectful.”
There’s more disrespect-finding potential in Hans Zender’s “Schubert’s Winterreise,” for tenor and small orchestra. This is a loving homage to a song cycle that couldn’t possibly be bettered, so Zender sent the songs through distortions and other surprising re-examinations, and I guarantee you’ll hate it from the moment that the snow-crunched footfalls of “Gute Nacht” achieve the sudden fervor of a sieg-heiling German marching band. As each of the subsequent songs veers into creative re-composition, it’s as if you’re touring a great museum with a highly opinionated and possibly insane guide who just happens to have genius insights. It’s a work that nags and nags and then grows on you.
Composer-conductor Gerard Schwarz masterminded a CD’s-worth of shorter works in which contemporary composers took on earlier pieces, giving us the pleasure of hearing Clarke’s “Trumpet Voluntary” pulled apart by David Stock with virtuosic skill, and Stravinsky’s “Infernal Dance” from the Firebird turned into a rock-band piece thanks to David Schiff. My favorite of the seven works is John Harbison’s thoughtful “Rubies,” probably because it takes us far enough away from Thelonius Monk’s “Ruby, My Dear” to appreciate the complexity of Monk’s work. Schwarz himself reworked a Handel Concerto Grosso for brass quintet and orchestra in a straight-ahead manner, and the disc also contains Bright Sheng’s Brahms-based “Black Swan,” Samuel Jones’s “Benediction (after Peter Lutkin), and Aaron Kernis’s “Musica Celestis,” taken from his own string quartet. The CD, now available on the Naxos label, was originally issued to be sold in Starbucks, so it contains nothing that might threaten those who find overpriced chain-store coffeehouses acceptable – in other words, those who perform little original thinking.
Which brings us to the current star of the show, Max Richter’s “Vivaldi Recomposed,” part of Deutsche Grammophon’s “recomposed” series. Richter makes a movement-by-movement deconstruction of “The Four Seasons,” preserving its violin-and-orchestra arrangement but recasting each section into something akin to Zender’s Schubert: it’s filtered through a new voice, albeit in this case one rooted in minimalism.
This allows for the pleasant, meandery settings if the tone of the movement isn’t to be too emotionally fraught, as with very opening, which hushes the enthusiasm of the birdsong, distancing us a bit from the proceedings.
Minimalism means never having to say V7-I, so the tension-release model of Vivaldi’s work also gets softened into more temporal declarations. But Richter recomposes with a skilled sense of drama, making this a cumulatively satisfying journey. I resisted the piece at first. It didn’t take long for it to win me over. My only fear is that this could become a trend that saturates us with such musings, and it’ll be that poor Fifth of Beethoven that gets into the crosshairs again.