Pleasant transcriptions

ANTONY PEEBLES is not a stranger to Chennai. Beginning in 1975, he has given us at least four recitals, so on Tuesday last, we were actually welcoming a friend back when we gathered at the Museum Theatre to hear him. And what interests Peebles these days is the tradition of transcribing by pianist-composers well music from other genres for the piano. He has just completed a 5-CD set of transcriptions by Franz Liszt of 55 of Schubert's songs.

The first two sets of pieces on Tuesday were songs by Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann, both well known when Franz Liszt made his virtuoso transcriptions.

Liszt was one of the first and certainly the most well known of the 19th century virtuoso performers at the piano. In his day, he was almost the equivalent of today's pop star — people were said to swoon and faint at his playing — and the music he wrote for himself to play, both his original pieces and his transcriptions of music by others, was intentionally some of the most difficult music to play. They explored harmonic and other aspects of the music in often surprising light, and, not incidentally, flamboyantly showing off his amazing technique as a pianist to best advantage for his audiences.

Peebles's reading of the Mendelssohn and Schumann songs was intentionally understated. We were not asked to think about the heavy technical demands of the transcriptions, but rather, to listen to Liszt's inventive harmonic and pianistic interpretation these now-famous melodies. The original pieces, in Peebles's playing, were always close to the surface of the music, and we were never far from Mendelssohn or Schumann's original musical intentions in our hearing of these transcriptions.

The same could be said for Peebles's own transcription of Nimrod, a movement from Sir Edward Elgar's orchestral piece, Enigma Variations. This is not virtuoso music in any overt sense. Rather it is a grand and rather solemn hymn-like tune, restated with variations, and ending quietly. No pyrotechnics here, just a very particular image of Elgar's musical intentions.

The idea for Mr Peebles is clearly that transcription of orchestral and other music for the piano enables us to understand the original music in a new way, rather like a black and white print of a photograph enables us to see form and line more clearly than would the same image in colour.

As a crowd-pleaser (and I expect Peebles was pleased, too) he played a transcription of Frederick Loewe`s music for the Broadway Musical "My Fair Lady". This was clearly intended to be in the tradition of Liszt as showman, with plenty of often-humorous Pyrotechnics surrounding these familiar and pleasing melodies.

Peebles's artistry shone most clearly in his rendition of two pieces, not transcriptions, but pieces originally for the piano by the great French masters, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. Debussy's Claire de Lune (moonlight) from his Suite Bergamasque is such a famous piece, that any playing of it will be judged carefully by even a casual listener.

Peebles's reading of this small gem of a piece was again understated, but in welcome contrast to the music that had preceded it. But for this listener, the highlight of the whole programme was his rendition of Ondine, the first movement of Maurice Ravel's virtuosic suite Gaspard de la Nuit.

In his spoken introduction to the piece, Peebles stressed that the poem upon which the piece was written referred to night and light on water, and thus connected with Debussy's piece.

Nearly flawless was his playing of this magical flight of pianistic colour, and I only wish he'd been able also to play for us the other two pieces that comprise this suite.

His playing of this masterpiece suggests that next time Peebles comes to visit Madras, we need to ask him for an early twentieth century French programme. I am quite sure it would be amazing.

Peebles' programme ended with his own transcription of the first movement from Grieg's Piano Concerto in A minor.

A very popular piece, it provided a suitable way to end a programme that asked for us to look afresh at music through piano transcriptions, but that ended up enabling us also to appreciate a fine and genial musical intellect on other levels as well.

The British Council is to be thanked for arranging this concert, given before a packed house, who would all say: Mr Peebles, come back again soon.


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