Arranger Vi King Lim has worked with us on many projects throughout the past years, including arranging all of the Beethoven piano concertos for chamber ensemble, Schubert Lieder and Mozart arias. He talks to us about his experience of what it’s been like to make these arrangements of a full scale work in the style of the C18th.
How do you approach adapting large scale works to bring them down to a handful of players?
Reducing orchestral works into chamber format for me is not about trying to replicate the orchestral sound and texture with a few instruments. My goal is always to come up with something which sounds inherently like a chamber work of the period, as if it were composed this way. I don't think it's vital to reference the orchestral instrumentation of the work, so that if a listener who didn't know the original version heard the chamber version, he or she might not think there was anything missing. Therefore it's instructive to study chamber compositions and arrangements of the period and attempt to emulate their style.
Arranging in the Classical period was common place. Have you learnt anything from the techniques used by the likes of Masi and Salomon to help you in your own arrangements? Any dos or don'ts?
I think Masi and Salomon achieved the ideal of creating arrangements that could be enjoyed purely as chamber works and managed to liberate their arrangements from the original orchestral versions. In some cases their artistic decisions may have taken them too far when they excised significant passages from the original work for the sake of brevity! They had more than a few tricks up their sleeves however when reducing the full orchestral texture to a few instruments. For example, when the orchestral woodwind instruments play together in an independent passage, Masi would almost always transfer this to the flute, two violas and cello in his chamber version. This not only sounds very blended – violas having a greater tendency to work well with woodwind compared with the other string instruments – but also requires the string players to play in the upper register creating a characteristically beautiful timbre to the ensemble. Other things I've learnt working with the AHE players is that doubling the two violins at the unison does not generally sound good in a chamber context unless all the strings are playing a unison-octave tutti passage. Some practical considerations such as making sure the flute can be heard over the strings might mean transposing its music up an octave. And be careful with using too many double stops just to preserve notes in a chord – sometimes less is more.
Why do you think Cimador and Masi chose this particular instrumentation to arrange for? (Flute, 2 violins, 2 violas, cello, bass)
Not only can the players for the septet combination be easily supplied but this combination is sufficient to cover almost every line in the original orchestral work. I found that I rarely had to sacrifice notes in my chamber arrangements with this ensemble. The instrumentation also works because it is basically a string quartet plus flute, an extra viola and a double bass. This extends the range and possibility of the string quartet in several ways: the flute "gilds the lily" and provides contrast and definition to the "woodwind" passages; the additional viola affords greater harmonic and contrapuntal flexibility and, together with the other viola, ends up covering many of the non-string lines; and the double bass rounds out the sound of the ensemble giving extra weight to the bass line when required and affording intimacy through its absence in quiet sections.
What do you find most challenging about writing these arrangements?
Reducing the Beethoven piano concertos for the AHE was challenging simply because they are such long works and therefore took a long time to complete. I guess you also know that many audience members are going to be familiar with the original orchestral versions so you end up worrying whether you have done justice to the music. I found myself rearranging passages several times to achieve the effect that I was aiming for and sometimes you just have to move on and trust that the end result will work.
What is the most satisfying thing about reducing these masterworks and recreating it in a chamber setting?
I feel that the masterworks could never be surpassed in their original orchestral versions but it's always entertaining to think "what if the composer had decided to write it for a chamber ensemble instead?" and then have a go at doing precisely that! So there is satisfaction derived from having the opportunity to reconceive the work as well as hearing the final arrangement performed by the AHE.
Do you find by reducing these works and getting to know the structure and intention so intimately a nice way to rediscover well known symphonic works?
Absolutely – I can say that I know the Beethoven piano concertos much better than I did before! When you are examining every single line in the orchestral texture and realising the orchestrational choices that Beethoven made, you gain a deeper appreciation of his genius as a composer.