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Bruno MONSAINGEON interview

A meeting with Bruno Monsaingeon

As we are releasing on our online site a first series of various transcriptions, intended for amateurs and professionals alike, made by Antoine Joly and Bruno Monsaingeon, Piano & Co met the latter. Answering our questions, he seemed ready to talk endlessly on the subject. Here are some of his remarks.

Piano & Co :
When did you start making transcriptions and why?
Bruno Monsaingeon :
It seems to me something quite natural. At one time or another, every violinist wishes he could play and make his own works which belong to the repertoire of other instruments. As far as I am concerned, this wish goes back a long time. Already as a teenager, I used to transcribe small pieces originally written for the piano or for the voice. Later on, I did transcribe for string quintet with 2 violas the great and magnificent F major four hand piano Sonata by Mozart. I thought its texture would lend itself perfectly to that kind of treatment. However, I did it in hand written form: the manuscript was hardly legible by anyone but myself. The real kick-off point which propelled me into that kind of activity in a massive way occurred about 15 years ago. Apart from the violin, I love playing the piano, even though I don’t do it professionally. The piano is an ideal instrument for sight-reading. For years, one of my friends, an excellent musician and amateur pianist, Antoine Joly, and I, threw ourselves headily on whatever four-hand reductions we could devour; quartets, quintets, sextets, the organ music of Bach, and so on. Until the day when, having purchased two pianos, Antoine had a brilliant idea: he suggested that, taking advantage of the presence of the two instruments carefully disposed so that we could exchange glances, we should perhaps try and sight-read these same works directly from the full score, the “conductor’s score” as they say in professional jargon. I would take care of the 1st violin and viola parts; while he who, as is often the case with pianists, was not really familiar with the C clef, would be responsible for the 2nd fiddle and cello parts. With some caution, we started out with the early quartets of Joseph Haydn. A miracle! The joy we felt was akin to that felt by those who engage in string quartet playing. The glowing sonority produced by the two pianos had no longer anything to do with the congested, muddy sound typical of the four-hand formula, with all its pitfalls in term of register and manual collision. Moreover, what we were playing were the exact notes, nothing less, nothing more than the music that had been written by the composer. There were none of the octave transpositions, none of the octave rumblings and doublings that are inevitable in four-hand playing and which produce a less than felicitous acoustical effect. In the quartets of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms, even the most voluble passages can be played perfectly well on the piano. One hardly ever finds in them typically violinistic figurations. And tremolandos, that number one enemy of the piano (and which are over-abundant in symphonic repertoire) are here practically absent.

Piano & Co :
But what you are talking about is sight-reading, not transcriptions.
Bruno Monsaingeon :
I’ll come to it in just a minute. Sight-reading straight from a full score does present an almost insurmountable challenge for the amateur musician: aside from the variety of clefs, four, five, six or even different parts feature in them. We could not help feeling compassion for the unfortunate pianists who, though they have at their disposal a fabulously rich repertoire, have no access to the treasures of string chamber music which they therefore hardly know at all. Incidentally, it’s quite a remarkable fact that almost all the greatest composers’ best works are chamber music works. They all have a musical substance of an altogether more meaningful level than that of the exhibitionistic output of such keyboard wizards as Liszt, Rachmaninov and their likes… 
 
Piano & Co :
May I be allowed to ignore what you just said..?
Bruno Monsaingeon :
As you wish. In any case, it is a fact that musicians, whether they are amateurs or professionals, are rarely capable of reading and playing with some fluency a full score of chamber music for strings. What can one do to render these gorgeous works accessible to piano practitioners? The answer to that question was obvious: it consisted in transcribing for two pianos the bulk of the quartet repertoire. How? By applying the method we had used during our passionate sight-reading sessions of these works. The 1st violin and viola parts would be assigned to one piano, the 2nd violin and cello parts to the other.

Piano & Co :
Was it that simple ?
Bruno Monsaingeon :
Obviously not. That was only the basic principle. In reality, we naturally wanted to achieve something a bit more subtle. In particular, there is no doubt that the 1st violin part of a quartet is generally more brilliant than that of the other instruments. Yet, each voice of a quartet has an equally important, though distinct, function. By redistributing meticulously the different parts from one piano to the other, we made sure that there would be a constant exchange between the two protagonists, thereby recreating the essential components of the joy of music making: mutual listening and exchange.

Piano & Co :
What kind of equipment did you use to make these transcriptions?
Bruno Monsaingeon :
For many years, Antoine Joly had been using and had mastered the software programme which enables one to write music. Instead of an unreadable manuscript, a score as clear as if it came straight from the printer’s workshop would come out of the computer. In this fashion, Antoine had already made over the years a first rough draft of transcriptions of Haydn’s, Mozart’s and Beethoven’s quartets. Personally, I had no knowledge whatsoever of computer techniques. I did not even own a computer. I was content being filled with wonder whenever Antoine announced he had finished a new transcription. We would then sit down and have a great time reading it, and proceed to make corrections of these first versions.

Some time later, Antoine suggested that we should perhaps embark on a totally different kind of transcriptions: that of the six Organ Trio Sonatas of Bach which we would turn into sonatas for viola and keyboard. Since the viola concert repertoire is, as everyone knows, rather slender, I thought it was a particularly welcome idea; all the more so since it seemed to me that the inborn lyrical quality of the viola made it the ideal instrument to display the prodigious expressive potential of these six master pieces.

And so, this endeavour became our first effective collaboration in the field of transcriptions. Indeed, one had to have an intimate knowledge of the string instrument to decide what it could do, to find the proper register and consequently the most adequate key in which the works should be transcribed. (As a matter of fact, Bach did not proceed differently when he himself wrote transcriptions of his own works). Our edition of these six Sonatas was recently published on paper by Editions Delrieu in Paris. I am satisfied that it will contribute a substantial expansion of the viola repertoire.

This venture kept us busy for quite a while and was also the occasion for me to think it was perhaps time that I acquired a certain autonomy. In order to do so, I could not avoid undertaking for myself the apprenticeship of the computer programme used by Antoine, an instrument that appeared to me at once diabolical and magical. Thanks to Antoines’s patient supervision, I eventually and progressively mastered its complex handling.

From then on, our work as well as the permanently developing catalogue which ensued took on much broader proportions. From a basis that was common to both of us, we were to pursue, if not divergent, yet different and in fact complementary objectives.

Piano & Co :
How did that manifest itself concretely?
Bruno Monsaingeon :  
Antoine’s interests are of a pedagogical and domestic nature; he is versed in 18th and 19th century musical literature. He is concerned with supplying good amateurs with an extraordinarily rich repertoire to which they don’t have access or whose existence they don’t even suspect.
He is also convinced that many amateurs give up practicing an instrument for lack of a sufficient ensemble repertoire. Hence his transcriptions for flute and piano – since the flute does not have a particularly vast repertoire of high quality at its disposal – of Haydn’s quartets, Trio Sonatas by Corelli and Haendel etc.
Whereas I am personally more inclined to make transcriptions which necessitate some intricate tampering of the original text. However, I do not do that for arbitrary reasons, but quite simply to bring out a version which offers an instrumental adaptation fit for concert performances. The Mendelssohn Octet, or Schubert’s G major Quartet are good examples of what I am after: a faithful but not literal representation of these works. In order to transcribe the good Franz’ glorious quartet for two pianos, I had to draw my inspiration from Schubert’s piano writing so as to render playable on the piano typically violinistic formulas which are found in the original, such as tremolos, dynamic effects, sustained notes etc.
Besides, I am also drawn towards 20th century music. Bartok’s Divertimento for strings, or Glenn Gould’s string quartet, among many other works, could also, in my view, and with the help of substantial adjustments, be the object of a convincing transcription for two pianos.
The question of orchestral music also titillates me from time to time, if only secondarily. Hence the transcriptions for two pianos I made of all the Bach Brandenburg Concertos, of Tchaïkovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, there again amidst many other things. All in all, what characterizes these endeavours, is that their destination is not so much amateur music making, but rather concert performance. My main purpose, once again, was to enlarge the rather limited two piano concert repertoire.

Piano & Co :
Have any of those been performed in public ?
Bruno Monsaingeon : 
Well, aside from the Bach Organ Sonatas, metamorphosed into viola and keyboard sonatas, nothing has been published so far. Consequently, whatever has been performed in public has been done with my own participation.
For instance, I have included in recital programmes some of the aforementioned Bach Sonatas, with pianists such as Piotr Anderszewski, Balàzs Szokolay, or Michaël Rudy.
Then there was the adventure of Mozart’s 28th piano Concerto! As everybody knows, Mozart composed only 27 of them, out of which three are indeed transcriptions of Sonatas by Johann Christian Bach. One crazy winter, I convinced myself that pianists desperately needed a 28th Mozartian opus. I set my heart on Mozart’s last concerto, written two months before he died, the one that I love more than any other, his clarinet Concerto.
Consequently, from the clarinet’s single line, I had to devise a piano score. It was naturally out of the question for me to write arabesque-like passages in the style of Mendelssohn or Hummel. I was determined I was going to respect scrupulously Mozart’s pianistic style. If I may say so, I believe that the result is quite convincing. The first performance of this new concerto took place in Russia, with Boris Berezovsky as soloist, and I was (for the 1st and probably last time) the conductor.Such are so far the only public exposures of our catalogue.
That said, I do hope that once they are online, some of our works will tempt performers.

Piano & Co :
How many works do you now have available, and what are you planning to release online?
Bruno Monsaingeon : 
There are already hundreds of them. Their online release will of course stretch over a period of many years, all the more so because we are carrying on with our work.
For the first release, Antoine and I have selected samples from the three categories succinctly described above:

1°) Amateur destination (flute and piano duets)
- 12 Trio Sonatas by Corelli and 12 Trio Sonatas by Haendel

2°) Amateur destination (two piano duets)
- Six quartets op.20 by Haydn
- 24 Cantata Arias by Bach

3°) Two piano concert repertoire
- Serenade for strings by Dvorak
- The three string quartets by Schumann
One additional word concerning the Cantata Arias by Bach, because I haven’t so far mentioned the extraordinarily exhilarating work we have pursued in that field. Who amongst pianists has but a summary knowledge of this astounding accumulation of masterpieces? I will not delve here into the method we have been using to transcribe already dozens of them for two pianos, because each Aria raised specific problems for which we had to discover individual solutions.
We can only assure those who, not being singers, will have under their fingers the possibility of letting the lyricism of the contralto Aria « Vergnüte Ruh’ » from Cantata BWV 170 exult, will savour a state of bliss which in itself is a reward.

Score search

To be issued

JS Bach : - E major Serenade for strings by Dvorak

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