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There are respectable precedents for orchestrating chamber music. This year’s Proms featured George Szell’s orchestration of Smetana’s first string quartet; Schoenberg’s orchestration of the Brahms G minor Piano Quartet is now legendary; Yan Pascal Tortelier has orchestrated Ravel’s Piano Trio, and any number of duos with piano have been scored post hoc, either by the composers themselves (e.g. Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi) or colleagues (e.g. Poulenc/ Berkeley Flute Sonata). Brahms himself, of course, scored his two-piano St Anthony Variations for full orchestra.

In orchestrating Brahms’s first piano trio, Joseph Swensen’s intention has been to make a neglected piece better known. His immense labours in producing a 47-minute ‘symphony’ must be saluted. Don’t expect the traditional Brahms-orchestra sound here: Swensen’s declared aim was instead to exploit the modern orchestra to reproduce the elaborate piano figurations intact. The opening is beguiling, but, despite some brilliant orchestral playing, the expected rich middle register is replaced thereafter by a hollow top-and-bottom sound that more recalls Mahler or Liszt and largely ignores, or avoids, the sustaining-pedal effect. Lovers of, say, Hamlet in modern dress will enjoy it; others may have reservations. The fill-ups are enterprising and the solo violin parts are beautifully played; the orchestrations, again, prefer rippling woodwind arpeggios to 19th-century solidity.

MICHAEL ROUND Read the full review on Agora Classica


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