Why play a reduction of a symphony? Why, when there are orchestras and a few dozen recordings ready to rain out of the digital cloud at any time — why present such a large work with so much loss?
One would only do it, of course, if there was much to gain. The contact such an arrangement brings with a sense of tangible history, of context, and memory is rich with meaning. To begin: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 was written in 1806. If one wanted to hear it at home before 1910 or so, one would have to hear it played, somehow, on a piano. This is something of a trivialization, of course — but it allows for first-hand contact with the basic materials of the composition. Before recordings, a piece would have to be read and touched to be heard. For practical and technical reasons, symphonic arrangements are most often for piano four hands (symphonies are large — Liszt’s Beethoven transcriptions for solo piano are terribly difficult). Larger groups could serve to distribute tasks and expand timbres, as well: Beethoven himself wrote a transcription of the 2nd Symphony for piano trio. So the first dimension of gain with a transcription is in the playing itself, which is a very active form of reading and understanding.
Then there are historical interests: Johann Nepomuk Hummel wrote arrangements of Beethoven’s first seven symphonies. Who was Johann Nepomuk Hummel? One tends to think of him (insofar as one might think of him at all) as another unlucky-not-to-be-Beethoven late-romantic, a maker of etudes, a sort of cheerful Czerny. This does him no justice. He seems to have been at the center of Austro-German musical and artistic circles his whole life, and also to have cultivated cultural circles where there he could. He toured, like Mozart, as a child prodigy; Mozart himself gave him lessons. Haydn, whom he followed at the court of the Esterhazy, composed the young Hummel a piano sonata, and later gave him musical instruction (along with Salieri). He was a successful performer and author, was a friend to Goethe and theater generally, and he made significant contributions to institutions for the support and protection of musicians (such contributions, full of prosaic but powerful consequence, often pass unremarked). Amidst this level of activity, Hummel found it worthwhile to study Beethoven’s Symphonies densely enough to transcribe them — a high level of tribute to Beethoven.
And Beethoven, whoever he was, deserves this study. If nothing else, one can see his consequential historical role as a catalyst for others’ work. And in Beethoven’s work itself, it remains hard to account for the raw power it offers. The Fourth symphony seems built from nothing, and yet it explodes. The patient tension of the opening of the first movement is the work of someone absolutely certain that listeners will hang on to every motion. The third movement’s riddling rhythms show an uncanny ear for balance and imbalance. And the fourth movement’s unwillingness to resolve until its end creates a sense of surprising inevitability and release. Of the third movement: Hector Berlioz suggested that it was written not by Beethoven but by the archangel Gabriel. Maybe that’s not so useful in a post-Romantic context. Amidst the rhymes and riddles of the other movements, however, the second movement stands out for its long melodic arc. And to hear it in a chamber music context, one requires the work of someone like Hummel — no archangel, but a real contributor to the world of what can be heard.