Backstage in his office-cum-lounge at the Woodruff Arts Center, home of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, conductor Robert Spano is hosting a little post-concert celebration. Cocktail in hand, Spano is very excited about the last of three concerts featuring pianist Dejan Lazič’s transformation of Brahms’ Violin Concerto into a work he calls Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 3.
“That was so great — you have to get on the Sibelius next!” Spano gushes, singing out one of the themes in the Finn’s beloved Violin Concerto as he leaps to his office piano to bang it out further. “That’s the way it ought to go, something like that, right? Do it!”
Lazič, a genial thirty-two-year-old Croatian, hums along gamely, appreciating Spano’s enthusiasm. It was Spano who — after overhearing Lazič fiddling with his Brahms transcription before a Beethoven performance two seasons back — insisted they premiere the work in Atlanta. Still, Lazič laughs off the Sibelius suggestion, as the Brahms project was a labor of love that took him six years. When he finally unveiled it with Spano and company last October, his label of a decade, Channel Classics, was on site to record the concerto for a March release.
The idea of turning the totemic Brahms Violin Concerto into a vehicle for another instrument might seem like an exercise in chutzpah, if not hubris. But there are precedents. Beethoven, by request, arranged his Violin Concerto as a concerto for piano (a more improbable prospect, given the original’s flowing lyricism). The ever-pragmatic Bach transcribed his own works and those of others every which way. Brahms, too, was a keen transcriber, even turning Bach’s towering Chaconne for solo violin into a piece for piano left-hand.
Still, though it has started to fade, there is a modern bias against transcriptions, deemed unnecessary at best, disrespectful at worst. A practiced re-arranger, Stravinsky pooh-poohed such a puritan attitude, saying, “You respect, but I love.” Nevertheless, a skeptical critic recently asked Lazič if customizing the Brahms was like “putting a mustache on the Mona Lisa.”
“That’s funny, but I certainly don’t think what I did is musical vandalism,” Lazič insists. “Brahms’ Violin Concerto is still there, after all. This was never an act of provocation, but an act of devotion — I just wanted so deeply to play this piece, my favorite work. The first concerto recording I ever heard was the Brahms, the famous Heifetz/Reiner LP.”
Although it seems strange today, a popular 19th-century quip about Brahms’ Violin Concerto was that it wasn’t a concerto for the violin but “against the violin.” Virtuosos of the day like Wieniawski and Sarasate disdained the piece as “unplayable” or as more of a symphony with violin obbligato.
“I do believe that Brahms wrote this work not as a concerto for violin, per se, but as a concerto for his friend, Joseph Joachim, one of history’s greatest violinists,” Lazič says. “And because Brahms always composed like a symphonist and thought like a pianist, Joachim suggested many changes to make the solo part more idiomatic for the violin.”
Lazič — who began composing at age ten, before he moved from Zagreb to Salzburg to study both piano and clarinet at the Mozarteum — didn’t change a note in Brahms’ orchestral score; the Atlanta Symphony played from its library parts. But to transfer the concerto’s solo part from the violin (a vocal instrument) to the piano (a percussive one) took leaps of imagination. How to re-create the missing vibrato, slurs and legato?
“That took years to resolve,” Lazič says, his eyes widening to express the effort. “I had to go deep into the bone of Brahms’ piano writing. I played the two concertos and the solo pieces, along with recording the cello sonatas with Pieter Wispelwey. I’ve also played Brahms’ pieces for clarinet, which helped me with his notions of breathing with the music.
“Of course, you can’t expect the piano to sing like the violin,” Lazič admits. “It’s like a beautiful woman who doesn’t happen to have great legs. So she doesn’t wear miniskirts. She tries to accentuate other attributes.... There are things, after all, that the piano can do in the areas of polyphony and overtones that the violin can’t, and this helps me create the illusion of legato. And the pedal is the piano’s version of vibrato.”
Harder to translate was the original concerto’s gypsy fire — the attack of the violinist’s bow on the strings, the tension of the hand on the fingerboard. Lazič traded this grit for grandeur: “Yes, con grandezza. I have to use blocks of chords, much as Brahms did in his Ballade, Op. 118, No. 3. I also thought of the sound of an instrument often used in gypsy music, the cimbalom.”
Lazič’s cadenza edges into Liszt–Busoni territory, and the virtuoso cascades delighted the Atlanta audience (which didn’t always wait to applaud, despite the live-recording notice). In the finale, however, the coordination of piano and orchestra proved tricky.
“The orchestra is so used to waiting for a violinist to change bow strokes that it was difficult to manage the timing so that the orchestra wasn’t early or I wasn’t late,” Lazič explains. “They also have to play heavier, louder than they are used to in this piece. Finally, it all came together on the last night.”
Channel Classics producer-principal Jared Sacks — a former horn player born in Boston but based in Holland for three decades-plus — had his own challenges. He and Lazič made their first live concerto recording last year — Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, with the London Philharmonic — from just one general rehearsal, one performance and a post-concert patching session of exactly nine minutes. Although they had more to work with in Atlanta, the Woodruff acoustic is notorious.
“Honestly, it’s not a good room for recording — not warm, no depth,” Sacks says. “Michael Bishop, who made Grammy winners here for years with Telarc, told me they learned to deal with it, putting plywood over seats, working studio-style. This was live, though, and I had to use the orchestra’s radio microphone setup, which I’m not used to. But I did add my surround-sound mics plus two for the piano.”
Those soloist–ensemble timing issues in the finale were exacerbated by the difficulty the orchestra players had in hearing Lazič, explains Sacks: “You have to decide whether you’re going to balance things on stage for the orchestra or the microphones or the audience. Ultimately, since this was a concert, you have to think of the audience first. There are things I can do with perspective in post-production, with ambience, too. Most important, the orchestra is playing great. The solo by the principal oboist [Elizabeth Koch] in the Adagio was fantastic.”
An indefatigable advocate of the audiophile Super Audio CD format (the last hundred and twenty discs in his twenty-year, three-hundred-title catalog have been released on SACD), Sacks admits that swimming against the twenty-first-century lo-fi tide can sometimes feel thankless: “Here I am working to make the best-sounding recordings possible in a world satisfied with crappy MP3s.”
This was Sacks’ first stateside production, and like many from Europe who venture orchestral recordings here, the producer says he is no fan of the American musicians union: “It can seem as if the orchestra is working for the union, not the other way around. Believe me, it’s much easier working in Hungary with the Budapest Festival Orchestra. But Spano made it all worthwhile. He is one hundred percent about the music.”
Lazič will complement his live Brahms concerto on disc with studio solos of Brahms’ Rhapsodies, Op. 79 and Scherzo, Op. 4. The pianist’s eleven-title Channel discography also includes a probing series of solo sets juxtaposing Scarlatti with Bartók and Schumann with Brahms (and, coming up, C.P.E. Bach with Britten). Such recordings have been a ticket to a broader career: “I have played three times in Medellín, Colombia, where I never could’ve gone had they not heard my CDs.”
But more than any recording project so far, his reimagined Brahms in Atlanta reaffirmed for Lazič how a little idealism can go a long way. “I did this transcription or arrangement or whatever you want to call it out of love,” he says, “but it will be on a record because Jared and Robert never asked why. They said, ‘Why not?’”
This article originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & Culture, Steinway & Sons’ award-winning magazine.