Feature review by James Harrington

BRAHMS (arr. Singer) Symphony No. 1 • Pianist Nada (pn) • 4TAY 4068 (Download: 56:48) Reviewed from a WAV download: 48 kHz/16-bit
One might ask why any pianist would devote his or her abilities to learning a major Romantic symphony transcribed for solo piano. There have been a few who have learned and recorded all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies as arranged for solo piano by Liszt, and even Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique for piano. These are exceptions. Brahms made piano duet and two-piano versions of all of his symphonies, as did many composers up into the 20th century, but none of them made solo piano arrangements. I then looked into a mirror and asked myself, “Why I did all of the work to learn and perform Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 1 in the composer’s own arrangement for piano duet?” It was music I liked, I got to learn it in great detail and had the opportunity perform it in recital at the Newport Music Festival in 1999.
Pianist Nada has already recorded an admirable set of eight discs covering all of Brahms’s solo piano music. These actually date back to her first CD, under the name Nada Loutfi, which recently was rereleased. All of her discs are available online at her website (pianistnada.com), and most from CDBaby or Amazon. The Beirut-born pianist is a U.S. citizen with Lebanese/Hungarian parents. Her early music training was made quite difficult by the civil war in Lebanon, which also claimed the life of her mother. For most of her pianistic life she has been deeply involved in the music of Brahms. After completing the solo piano music, it seems quite logical for Nada to move to the First Symphony, a work on which Brahms worked for nearly 14 years. The skill with which she brings out all of the voices cannot make you forget the orchestral version, but it can make you listen to the music a little differently.
Otto Singer II (1863–1931) is the transcriber here, with a few of Nada’s revisions for corrections and clarity of texture. I was astounded by the quantity of Singer’s symphonic and opera transcriptions that were published. He did the orchestral reductions for most Wagner and Strauss operas, symphonic poems by Liszt and Strauss, all the symphonies of Beethoven, Berlioz, Brahms, Bruckner, and selected ones by Mahler, Mozart, and Schubert. I cannot conceive of just writing out all of his transcriptions in a lifetime. He had the task of taking the orchestral scores and making them suitable for solo piano. In days before IMSLP where all of this is readily available online, I remember the work it took me to make a piano reduction of one scene from a Strauss opera for which I only had a library copy of the full score.
My guess is that Singer had specialized skills and did his job well, but the kind of piano versions that Liszt did of Beethoven and Berlioz are on a much higher creative level. When a pianist with Nada’s abilities gets Singer’s transcriptions, I can understand why she made revisions for clarity of texture. Believing that even the composer’s transcriptions were meant as a learning tool and for personal enjoyment, I doubt that concert performances were ever envisioned. As such, I even made just a few revisions to the Rachmaninoff’s own duet version: doubling an octave here and there, adding in a missing voice, using a bass cluster to emulate the sound of a gong crash. Nothing I would not share with the composer had I lived 100 years ago!
Pianist Nada has done us great service through her efforts to bring a renowned masterpiece into a new light. She has the temperament, skills and commitment to the composer’s music that is required for an enlightening performance. The recorded sound was very good, close and clear. Her booklet notes online gave some useful insight into the recording. James Harrington