BACH Transcriptions for Piano by other Composers. Lauriala (Naxos) – INKPOT
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Transcriptions for Piano
Overture from Cantata BWV 29 Wir danken dir Gott (trans. Saint-Saens)
Adagio from Sonata in F major for violin and continuo, BWV 1018 (trans. Siloti)
Chaconne from Partita for violin in D minor, BWV 1005 (trans. Siloti)
Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 (trans. Reger)
Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 582 (trans. d’Albert)
Toccata and Fugue in D minor “Dorian,” BWV 538 (trans. Kabalevsky)
RISTO LAURIALA piano
|by Jonathan Yungkans|
If there were a composer who more fully transcended his time than any other, it would have to be Johann Sebastian Bach. Despite what some texts and teachers have said through the years, the 19th-century Bach “revival” was a misnomer because he wasn’t really forgotten. He may have not been as well-known in the general public as he is now, but too many musicians knew and revered Bach’s music for it to become anathema.
As Harold C. Schonberg points out in his book The Great Conductors, Bach (left) “was the bread and butter of every musician from 1750 to the great nineteenth-century revival.” Mozart “discovered” his music and learned immensely from it. Beethoven was fed a steady musical diet of it as a youth, as were Chopin and Brahms. As a result, all four composers’ creative lives were profoundly influenced.
At the same time, a 19th-century school of thought prevailed that Bach’s music had to be modernized for it to serve then-current fashion, that it was either too long or too plain to hold the public’s attention. Hence, when Mendelssohn “revived” the St. Matthew Passion, Schonberg writes, he “chopped, recomposed, edited, romanticized and introduced special effects, such as in the recitative “Und der Vorhang in Tempel zerriss,” where a lightning flash of sound ran through the orchestra. Mendelssohn used a chorus of 400 and a greatly augmented orchestra.” Some today may shudder at such wholesale overhauling, but the efforts were well intentioned: to create a larger public awareness and general audience for Bach’s music.
An offshoot of this effort to popularize Bach’s music was piano transcriptions of many of his works. From the 1830s, there were pianos in most middle- and upper-class homes. Women and children were taught to play as a matter of course, and as part of the burgeoning market in music for the home, all manner of compositions were arranged for piano. Also, as the solo piano recital gained in popularity in the mid-19th century, many composers and pianists transcribed Bach’s works for their own use, as well as to sell to publishers for the home market.
In producing a disc of these transcriptions, Naxos has gone one step further afield than usual. Instead of well-known transcriptions by Ferrucio Busoni, Sergei Rachmaninov or Leopold Godowsky, they have selected six well-written but seldom-heard arrangements by other composers.
We now know Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921; pictured right) primarily for his own compositions, but he was also a pianist, organist and lifelong Bach enthusiast who transcribed many movements from Bach’s cantatas.
His arrangement of the Overture from Wir danken dir Gott, which opens this program, is dazzling, with a number of left-hand trumpet-like flourishes and imitative passages sparking the proceedings. It is definitely Bach as filtered through the sensibilities of Saint-Saëns’ Second Piano Concerto and Organ Symphony, but it is a charming work in its own right.
Alexander Siloti (1865-1945) was pupil of Franz Liszt who later became one of Sergei Rachmaninov’s teachers at the Moscow Conservatory, and taught at the Julliard School in New York after leaving Russia. Two of his many transcriptions are included here.
His arrangement from the Adagio from the Violin Sonata in F minor is simple, flowing and lovely, and must have given Rachmaninov some ideas for his own arrangement of three movements from the Violin Partita in E major, BWV 1006.
The Chaconne from the Violin Partita in D minor is better known in its arrangement by Ferrucio Busoni. Siloti’s transcription is less massive and more transparent than Busoni’s. This gives greater clarity to the melodic line, which does not stay at the top, and makes the chordal structure less overwhelming than in the Busoni. There is a loss of organ-like sonority, but greater movement and instrumental color is gained.
Max Reger (1873-1916), like Saint-Saens a composer, pianist and organist, as well as a conductor, specialized in compositions where Bachian counterpoint was wedded to titanic musical structures. His transcription of the BWV565 Toccata and Fugue in D minor, perhaps Bach’s most famous composition, is more pianistic than Busoni’s arrangement (some of the chordal stretches in the latter are murderous to play), but in terms of sheer sound, I prefer the Busoni.
This is one work that needs a massive, organ-like sonority to come off successfully, and as well-crafted as Reger’s arrangement is, it makes the piece sound too light. But the pianistic figurations Reger employs to substitute for bulk make his arrangement a fascinating alternative.
Eugen d’Albert (1864-1932), another Liszt pupil, was called “the second Liszt” by some in the last quarter of the 19th century for his interpretations of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Liszt, as well as for his own compositions. Conductor Bruno Walter was so taken aback when he heard d’Albert play that he described him as a new type of centaur – half man, half piano.
D’Albert’s transcription of the Passacaglia in C minor has a haunting quality that befits the original. He adds a number of pianistic tints and bold strokes of color to this piece, giving it the musical equivalent of watching a sunrise through an intricate stained-glass window. Although the effect is thoroughly un-Bachian, it is nonetheless thrilling. One can see how this would make quite an impression in the concert hall.
Dmitri Kabalevsky (1904-1987) started out as a pianist while developing his compositional prowess and tiptoeing as gently as possible through the political minefield that became the Soviet artistic scene.
While Kabalevsky was a contemporary of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, his arrangement of the “Dorian” Toccata and Fugue in D minor is thoroughly Romantic in spirit and dramatic in tone.
Risto Lauriala (right), a Finnish pianist who has also recorded piano music of Sibelius for Naxos, plays here with great clarity, and clears the technical thickets in these works with no problems at all. His playing is very straightforward, and a little lacking in color and drama. Though Lauriala’s reticence is not enough to totally spoil the presentation here, he could have made things even more interesting by taking a few more chances here and there.
In all, Lauriala’s traversal is competent, though somewhat bloodless. Nevertheless, I would recommend hearing it, since this is the only recording of these rare and captivating arrangements on the market today. One only wishes after hearing them, as historically and politically incorrect as it may sound, that more pianists would play them in the concert hall, and give listeners a greater appreciation of what the 19th century had to say in homage to Papa Bach.
Bibliography/List of References:
1. Anderson, Keith, Liner notes for Naxos 8.553761Bach Transcriptions for Piano (Hong Kong: HNH International Ltd., 2000), 2-3.
2. Schonberg, Harold C., The Great Conductors (New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1967), 117-118.
3. Schonberg, Harold C., The Great Pianists (New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1963).
JONATHAN YUNGKANS first heard a Bach work when James Mason as Captain Nemo played the Toccata and Fugue in D minor in the film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Jonathan’s been hooked ever since.
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754: 20.8.2000 Jonathan Yungkans
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