5 Best creative classical music arrangements

Keziah Thomas 30 June 2022

Harpist Keziah Thomas introduces her favourite creative arrangements of classical music masterpieces, from Vivaldi to Stravinsky and Liszt

During the pandemic I missed collaborating with my colleagues in orchestra, as being a small but vital part of a huge orchestral work is exhilarating. 

In this quiet time at home, I had time to reflect on some pivotal moments in my career and this led to me creating arrangements of music that are particularly significant to me as an orchestral harpist.

These works included themes from Rimsky-Korsakov’s "Scheherazade" (I once played this on a tour to Paris with a youth orchestra) and the slow movement of Rachmaninov’s "Second Symphony" (the first album gifted to me by my parents).

Here are five of my favourite creative arrangements of large-scale orchestral pieces for chamber and solo instruments.

I have chosen to present arrangements and performances by female musicians as, in 2021, less than 5% of of the classical pieces performed worldwide were written by women.

Seraph Brass perform Franz Liszt’s "Hungarian Rhapsody No.2"

Seraph Brass are a quintet of all-female brass players from the US who add sparkle and swagger to Jeff Luke’s arrangement of Liszt’s solo piano work.

This piece has been arranged for pretty much every instrument, including by the brilliant Harpo Marx in A Night in Casablanca.

In this arrangement, I love the way that the brass instruments highlight the folk-dance origins, bringing a fairground ride flavour.

Coline Jaget performs Henriette Renié’s transcription of Franz Liszt’s "La Rossignol"

In my opinion, Henriette Renié is the greatest harpist to have lived, played and composed for the instrument.

Without her transcriptions, compositions and method of harp technique, the instrument would not be in the position it is today.

"Le Rossignol" is one of two piano works by Liszt that she transcribed and, as I discovered in my The Four Season’s arrangement, the characteristics of the Nightingale song translate beautifully to the harp, with delicate trills in the highest register of the instrument.

"Renié was also one of the first composers to exploit the enharmonic possibilities of the double-action pedal harp"

Renié was also one of the first composers to exploit the enharmonic possibilities of the double-action pedal harp, the instrument developed by Sébastien Érard in 1810.

This new mechanism, which was developed at the height of Renié’s career, enables the harpist to set the pedals to allow for two adjacent strings to sound at the same pitch.

This opens up a larger harmonic range of pitches than was possible before, and enables the instrument to be capable of Liszt’s harmonic language.

Renié seized the opportunity to explore this new instrument. It is thanks to her creativity that the harp has its current position as a solo instrument.

Martha Argerich and Jura Margulis perform the Margulis transcription of Mussorgsky’s "Night on a Bare Mountain"

Here is a thrilling account of an astonishing transcription performed by one of the greatest pianists of our time, Martha Argerich, and the transcriber, Jura Margulis.

Inspired by the trend in tone poems led by Franz Liszt in the 1840’s, Mussorgsky draws on witchcraft and devilry in this ever-popular work.

In this transcription for two pianos, the wild and terrifying character is is brought to life in a wild party between the instruments.

Vesna Duo perform Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring

"Let’s do something crazy"—these are the words that percussionist Ksenija Komljenović used when speaking about her arrangement of The Rite of Spring.

"There were riots from the audience at the premiere of The Rite of Spring in 1913"

From the opening bassoon solo of a Lithuanian folk song transcribed for the marimba to the driving, pulsating rhythms of "Spring Rounds", the energy and excitement that sizzles between the artists creates some jaw-dropping moments.

There were riots from the audience at the premiere of The Rite of Spring in 1913 but watching this performance, I only give riotous applause!

Laura Lace performs the "Summer Storm" from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons

Finally, I just had to include an arrangement of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. I certainly feel like a bit of a rock star when I perform this movement, but Latvian electric guitarist Laura Lace really is one!

Sometimes young musicians wonder why their teachers ask them to spend so much time perfecting scales, and it is moments like the opening of this movement when it makes perfect sense.

Whatever the instrument, the ability to articulate and control long scale passages in a presto tempo showcases virtuosity like nothing else.

Keziah Thomas’s first ever complete arrangement of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons for solo harp is out now on Convivium Records. Keziah is also currently on a UK-wide album tour. Visit her website for more information and tickets.

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