Zak GrafiloEarly in 2008, the ASQ was in the midst making plans to do a Brahms chamber music series at Baruch College in New York City where we would perform the three String Quartets, the two Viola Quintets, the two String Sextets, as well as the Piano and Clarinet Quintets. The repertoire was wonderful and it gave us a chance to explore Brahms’ chamber works with some of our closest friends. When we actually sat down and started putting the programs together however, we noticed that some of them were a bit on the short side. In order to fill out these shorter programs the guys asked if I might be up for a little transcribing. I had done pretty well a few years earlier when I arranged four Preludes and Fugues of Shostakovich for our recordings of the Shostakovich String Quartet Cycle, so I was definitely up for the task.

My original idea was to find piano works that were composed around the same time as the works that we were performing on the series. The nice thing was that the series began with the Op. 18 String Sextet and ended with the Op. 115 Clarinet Quintet, so I had pretty much the entire Brahms piano repertoire to choose from. At one point, Paul pulled me aside and said, “if you’re going to transcribe something from the late piano works; like the Op. 118 or 119 piano pieces, you must do the A Major Intermezzo.” And that’s how it all started – Paul’s request for the A Major Intermezzo was what got me motivated to transcribe this particular piece for the ASQ.

Whenever I start a transcription, it usually begins with two or three recordings. When I was transcribing the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues the recordings that helped me hear the voicings for my arrangement were Roger Woodward’s on Celestial Harmonies (read my post about Roger Woodward’s recording) and Tatiana Nikolaeva’s on Melodiya. I followed the same formula for the Brahms as well. I listened to several different recordings of the Intermezzo and there were three particular recordings that I pulled inspiration from: Arthur Rubinstein’s on RCA Red Seal, Julius Katchen’s on London, and Radu Lupu’s on Decca. From these three, I put together an ideal composite of how I imagined the string parts would sound like. Take a listen to the Radu Lupu recording below and compare it to my string quartet transcription.

With Strings AttachedCompared to the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues, the Brahms Intermezzo was much more complicated to put together. I was quite surprised when I first looked at the score because how sparse the writing was. But yet, the aural effect of the voicing together makes it sound incredibly rich. When I began arranging the parts, I wanted to make sure that I conveyed that same sort of richness. In the middle, or “B” section of the piece, I did a little bit of Brahms channeling by ‘composing’ a pizzicato line for the viola. Brahms loves to combine three’s against two’s and often with strings he’ll do this with pizzicato, so I thought, “Why not?!? It’s something Brahms would have done!” I particularly enjoy this section of the piece because I get to take a short break while the other three play as a string trio.

I’m still a bit hesitant when ever we perform this piece because I’m always afraid that the pianists in the audience will storm out of the hall, offended that I’ve ruined one of Brahms’ greatest piano works. Thankfully, I’ve been pleasantly surprised when pianists come up to me afterwards saying how “Brahmsian” the transcription sounds and how the voicings of the Quartet are wonderfully exposed in a way that is practically ideal. I just hope that when I die, Brahms will say that he was pleased with my transcription.

—Zak Grafilo

Listen to an excerpt from Zak’s Intermezzo in A Major as recorded on the ASQ’s new release With Strings Attached:

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Allegro Classical

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