“From our youth on we were entwined in A Midsummer Night’s Dream,
and Felix particularly made it his own. He identified with all the
characters. He recreated them, so to speak – every one of those whom
Shakespeare produced in the immensity of his genius.”
A long time ago, before Apple invented the iPod, one of the hottest categories in the music shop would have been transcriptions of orchestral music for piano duet. This was often the only means you’d have of hearing orchestral works. Sometimes these became concert pieces in their own right. Liszt, for example, played Beethoven symphonies in recital (two hands). Mere mortals needed four hands for the same effect.
Rachmaninoff gave the virtuoso treatment to the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream music; Horowitz came up with a set of variations on the Wedding March; Liszt joined the Wedding March with the Dance of the Elves. But Mendelssohn got there first with his own transcriptions – three movements that I know of for piano solo, and all the best-known numbers for piano duet.
Piano transcriptions offer a more direct and tangible way of getting to know orchestral music than mere listening or score reading. Playing the music, in other words. If you’re fortunate, like the Mendelssohns, you’ll have an actual orchestra to hand every second Sunday, in which case it’s the intrepid flute player who tests stamina and technique in the Scherzo. But if you don’t there can be nothing more revealing than studying a score at the piano.
And in pre-concert talks for orchestral concerts – as long as the point being made isn’t to do with instrumental colour – piano transcriptions can be a very handy way of providing a musical illustration without spoiling the ears for the real thing in the concert.
Note to self: really must get a piano.