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.
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
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.
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
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.
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,
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.
(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.
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.
Keith, Liner notes for Naxos 8.553761Bach Transcriptions for Piano
(Hong Kong: HNH International Ltd., 2000), 2-3.
Harold C., The Great Conductors (New York: Simon and Schuster,
Inc., 1967), 117-118.
Harold C., The Great Pianists (New York: Simon and Schuster,
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.
If you wish to
Add a Comment to this article, please email your comments to email@example.com.
20.8.2000 © Jonathan Yungkans
From: Johann D'Souza (firstname.lastname@example.org / Thursday, August 24, 2000 at 12:39:49)
Thanks for this review, I have been looking for stuff on Naxos of this nature- I will definately order it. I would like to make a recommendation and that is Bach's Italian Journey Vol 1 played By Cyprian Katsaris playing works of vivaldi transcribed by Bach from his orchestral works for solo instrument and orchestra- great stuff
From: Kai (email@example.com / Sunday, August 27, 2000 at 22:02:29)
I was just wondering if the famous Chacoone mentioned here is from Violin Partita No 2, BWV 1004 and not BWV 1005 which would belong to a Sonata?
From: marie desnoyers (firstname.lastname@example.org / Tuesday, February 27, 2001 at 04:59:19)
I already have the Naxos CD of the Bach transcriptions for piano,
and really love
it, mostly the Siloti arrangement of the Adagio from Sonata in F
minor for violin and continuo,BWV1018. I tried to find the
music sheet of it, but I have been told that the piano edition
doesn't exist anymore......would anyone can help me finding it?
I would like so much to play it myself.....thank you
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