Music is so available nowadays that it is easy to overlook the fact that there were times when for some the only opportunity to hear an orchestral piece would be by listening to a transcription either for keyboard or for a small ensemble. We know that Salomon transcribed Haydn’s ‘London’ Symphonies for piano trio only two years after their completion and there are also arrangements for quintet, usually with flute taking the leading part. Composers often transcribed their own music; there was no strict copyright in those days so Haydn’s arrangement for string quartet of his Seven Last Words gave him some benefit – an arrangement for piano was done by another musician and Haydn did not disapprove. Historic arrangements have come more into vogue lately; Liszt’s transcriptions of Beethoven Symphonies are once again being played and recently there have been performances of Bruckner Symphonies transcribed for organ and for two pianos.
In 2015 Ivan Ilić was shown manuscripts of Haydn Symphonies in transcriptions by Carl David Stegmann (1751-1826). This was an exciting discovery involving presentations of twenty-five of the works. It is unlikely that any of these were ever publicly performed but they were probably much appreciated by talented amateur pianists. Ilić performs his selection of three Symphonies. He is not afraid to pause, carefully to shape the melodies or to taper endings of themes. Sometimes this works satisfactorily and at others it is not quite appropriate – the approach varies from movement to movement. Repeats are sometimes decorated but not consistently so. Usually the first section of a Minuet is modified as in Symphonies 44 and 75 but in No.92 both sections of the Minuet and the Trio are decorated on repeat.
‘Trauer’ Symphony flows well – although the whole point of the Minuet’s Trio is the mystical and wonderful high horn passage - the music plods without it. As in all the works Ilić is generous with repeats but in making those of both halves of the Finale he returns to the repeat seventeen bars before the end, therefore on restatement the missing bars represent a coda. Surprisingly, this comes off very well and makes sense.
The first movement of #75 sounds rather plain but the beautiful Andante con variazioni (Poco adagio in Haydn’s original score) is very eloquent. Repeats of the first statement of the two-part theme are decorated but Haydn’s own expansions of the melody remain sufficient for the remainder. The Minuet is played lyrically and flexibly, but in the Finale, without the strong orchestral contrasts, the thematic material is rather plain.
It is difficult though to think of a use for these arrangements. The general impression is of a series of movements, some of which respond amazingly well to their transfer but others disappoint. These transcriptions are not vital rarities but this investigation into a once-popular genre is certainly worthwhile.