One of the most challenging tasks the collaborative pianist faces is grappling with orchestral reductions. We do not have the same variety of timbres available that a full orchestra can produce. "Piano Reduction" often means the editor simply transposed all voices into a single key and tossed every note on the staff with no thought for what might be most pianistic. Voicing and registration must conform to the physical limit of hand span.
The challenges of orchestral scores are at the forefront of my thoughts at the moment. I am preparing a recital that will feature Mahler's massive Kindertotenlieder. Much of the work's appeal is found in the rich orchestration the composer provided to support the lush vocal lines. While dealing with this enormously challenging score, I'm finding a few things helpful as I prepare for the performance.
- Use the orchestral setting as a roadmap for your piano reduction. It seems obvious, but as pianists, we can sometimes get so wrapped up in the notes on the page that we forget about the sounds that the composer intended. Regularly returning to the orchestral score and recordings helps us make informed decisions about phrasing, color, and layering.
- Accept the piano's limitations. My instrument cannot warm a single tone by adding vibrato. The core of the sound of a sustained pitch quickly decays compared to one sustained by a wind instrument. Rather than fighting against the piano's limitations, focus on its unique qualities and look for opportunities to exploit them.
- Carefully decide what is most important and what can be simplified (or completely left out)! Orchestral reductions are notoriously difficult to play. Through carefully examining the score and critically listening to recordings, it is the pianist's responsibility to determine what is essential and what can be left out. Resist the pressure to play every note. In this situation, communicating the intent of the orchestral accompaniment is far more important than sacrifing musical line in the name of virtuosity.
- Decode the text! The composer carefully chose the text that he set as well as the performance directives included in the score. It is essential that the pianist translate each word included in the score. A marking of agitato combined with lyrics referencing a storm clearly suggests a violent mood. Return to the text throughout your preparation, constantly looking for new insights that will influence your interpretation.
What do you find to be essential steps in your preparation of orchestral reductions? Is there a certain edition or composer whose reductions cause you significant levels of stress? We'd love to hear your stories in the comments below.