This version of the Eroica belongs to a long tradition of transcriptions of orchestral works for smaller forces which became increasingly common in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, both as a means of popularising works and to make them more commercial. Often these arrangements took the form of keyboard transcriptions, either for two or four hands, but this version of the symphony for piano quartet promises more replication of the timbre of the original scoring than is usually possible.
In the case of this particular arrangement, the anonymous transcriber not only distributed most of the pitches of the original among the forces with remarkable skill, but also forged a convincing piece of chamber music in its own right out of the symphonic original. An example is the trio of the Scherzo, where the famous original scoring for three horns is replaced by a very effective combination of the strings. A different effect is of course achieved, but it is equally striking.
While Peter Sheppard Skærved, the author of the excellent sleeve notes, preserves a scholarly reticence concerning the identity of the transcriber, it must seem very likely that it was Beethoven himself. As Skærved comments, the transcriber must have been a musician of fertile inventiveness and striking boldness and, in addition, must have had an extremely precise knowledge of the score (which at that date had not been printed, and had only been first performed three years earlier).
Beethoven’s verifiable skill as a transcriber of his own works is of course well-known: in addition to such arrangements as the string quartet version of the piano sonata Op. 14 No. 1, Beethoven had himself published an arrangement of the Second Symphony for piano trio in 1805. Certain passages are reminiscent of the texture of some of the piano sonatas, for example the opening of the Marcia Funèbre which here recalls similar effects in the slow movement of Op. 31 No. 2. The most puzzling aspect of the transcriber’s identity is perhaps why, if it was Beethoven himself, he remained anonymous when the piano quartet version was published in 1807.
The interpretation of the symphony is perhaps the least distinctive feature of the recording, appearing neither wholly committed to a style which emphasises the strikingly Romantic qualities of the music nor to one which seems particularly indebted to informed period practice. Instead, for example, one hears the conventional tempi for each movement, with the Scherzo a little disappointingly taken at a slightly slower tempo than is usually the case.
The recording of this remarkable transcription matches the quality of the score, though the balance of sound is perhaps a little bottom-heavy: it would be good to hear Skærved’s expressive and polished violin playing more prominently at times. The other instrumentalists are equally accomplished, perhaps particularly Aaron Shorr, whose impressive pianism provides a staunch backbone to the ensemble.
Occasionally one does miss the weight of the original orchestration, for example at the end of the final movement, but the ear is often drawn to previously less noticeable features of the score through its presentation via such different forces. The effect is thus similar to that so often obtained by performances on original instruments, though here the players perform on modern ones. This recording represents far more than a mere curiosity. The score on which it is based is clearly a labour of love by the transcriber, and a real work of art.