One may have principled reasons, whether raising an eyebrow or being downright hostile, to anything that goes against a composer’s intentions (although transcriptions are a centuries-old tradition), specifically here a change of setting, from intimate ensemble to symphony orchestra – which is not to be confused with something orchestral being wantonly altered within its ranks by the likes of Stokowski or, conversely, a Good Samaritan act that rescues an ambitious masterwork left-unfinished yet significant for our reward, such as Deryck Cooke’s Mahler 10 and Anthony Payne’s Elgar 3 in which various degrees of third-party speculation were necessary to ensure fruition.
Kenneth Woods has orchestrated Brahms’s A-major Piano Quartet (in the booklet he goes into considered detail as to why) and, of course, he has a pertinent precedent in Schoenberg’s scoring of Opus 26’s immediate G-minor predecessor, somewhat quirky in orchestral use (in relation to Brahms’s own examples in his Symphonies and Concertos) if colourful and likeable, even fun in the Finale. Woods is more conservative in his choices (unlike Schoenberg), not using any instrument that Brahms didn’t write for, or so my ears tell me, yet what he’s done invites numerous references.
Thus the opening, and arresting, opening is for horns, very Brahmsian, yet the mind leaps to Schumann (his Opus 86 Konzertstück for those instruments), and for all that the expansive exposition (duly repeated) has in Woods’s tints allusions to Brahms’s Opus 11 Serenade there are also passages that are now revealed as Elgarian. These are not criticisms for there are some fascinating interconnections suggested, and the large-scale opening movement (seventeen minutes) takes on the mantle of a heroic tale, a forest legend. The Adagio includes ominous growly brass, a sinister sound amidst mellifluous lyricism – there is always the sense that the music is about something (Hansel and Gretel meeting the Witch), not least when an impassioned climax is reached. The Scherzo (if more an intermezzo) could now be credited to Dvořák, nothing wrong with that, with elements of outdoors and folksiness, veiled emotions too, with greater (Slavonic Dance) exuberance emerging, and the Finale has a Sullivan-esque pace and skip, at least until the heavier-hearted second subject arrives.
With Woods conducting there can be no doubt that his intentions are fully revealed, certainly with excellent playing and a clear recording, if a little hard and dry. Wood’s achievement, made over several years and then revised in time for this recording, is considerable and imaginative, and should appeal to open-minded Brahms-lovers, and fans of the other composers cited, to sample a chamber masterpiece in an appealing new light. I have relished (and also slightly questioned) Woods’s version several times, and shall do so again.