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My arrangement for two pianos of Berg’s Drei Orchesterstücke op.6 (the first of its kind, so far as I am aware) is the culmination of years of sporadic endeavour.  The arrangement of Reigen was made in early 1985. I did not get round to typing this movement until almost twenty years later. The remaining two movements were completed in December 2010 and January 2011. A performance of Reigen was given by Izumi Kimura and Deborah Henry at the Royal Irish Academy of Music in July 2009.

Piano reduction was an activity of fundamental importance to the three composers of the Vienna School. The two-piano version of Schoenberg’s Fünf Orchesterstücke was made by Webern, and Berg took on the huge task of making the piano score of his teacher’s Gurrelieder.

 In relation to the famously dense Berg pieces, the question may fairly be asked: how does a piano version help our understanding of the music? My experience of teaching Op. 6 has been interesting. Initially, students find the piano score more intimidating than the orchestral score with its standard orientation of first violins, percussion etc. But this is more a matter of familiarity than complexity, and they quickly adapt to the new format. A subtler problem arises in performance, where the equal-tempered keyboard imposes a  spartan sound-quality that can be disturbing to those familiar with the rich colours of the original. But listeners who have heard the keyboard versions of La Valse, La Mer and Schoenberg’s Five Pieces will be familiar with this problem.

The countervailing benefits are surely great. The sheer difficulty of finding one’s way around a score with as many as thirty staves and numerous complex transpositions is dramatically reduced. Also, the clarity of Berg’s voice-leading becomes (for the first time, in the case of one listener at least) absolutely manifest. In this respect, it is astonishing how much of the work fits comfortably unto four staves. Where this proves impossible, I have included as much detail as seemed helpful and left the players to make their own decisions. The larger type-face shows clearly where the important voices are.

Compromises had to be made if my version was not to become redundantly all-inclusive, and in the interests of the two-piano medium. So not every harp glissando is included, nor every note for untuned percussion. A vital exception is the opening of the work, an amazing little fantasia for untuned percussion. Clearly this passage is a structural necessity, and imposes decisions on pianists wanting to play the entire work, for it requires five players. Prospective performers might still reflect that this is a lot better than having to assemble an orchestra of over one hundred!

Finally, I would like to express my hope that players will actually perform my version. Reigen makes a beautiful two-piano work. I have no doubt that the other two movements do so as well. Even on my midi playback, they make an impressive clatter. Berg’s masterpiece gets few hearings because of the large orchestration. The tradition of making such works familiar through keyboard reduction is a long and noble one. I hope that where Drei Orchesterstücke is concerned, it might be revived.

I will post more essays on this subject.

Alban Berg: Drei Orchesterstücke Op. 6, reduction for two pianos by Kevin O'Connell, 1985-2011.

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