'A magnificent addition to both the Bach repertoire and Angela Hewitt's artistically unparallelled survey of Bach's keyboard compositions' (Fanfare, USA)
'One of the foremost Bach interpreters of our time, Hewitt brings her own distinctive timing and touch. She makes the most of the piano’s sonority … demonstrating remarkable finger strength in sustaining the various lines of Bach’s melodies and counter-melodies and effectively drawing out the tenderness, vigour and serenity of the music. [An] attractive and impressive recording' (The Inverness Courier)
'A collection of rarities and oddities that makes for enjoyable listening. The quality of the Hyperion recording is excellent, with the right balance of ambience and instrument in the fine sounding Henry Wood Hall' (Pianist Magazine)
'Divine, uplifting' (The Ottawa Citizen)
'For pure listening pleasure that is both delightful and profoundly moving, this one is hard to beat' (National Post, Canada)
Movement 1: Sinfonia [4'01]
Movement 2: Siciliano [3'54]
This delightful disc offers a selection from the wealth of piano transcriptions of Bach's music. The Bach revival that gathered momentum during the nineteenth century created a climate for many composer-pianists to interpret his works through their own piano transcriptions, whether of chorale preludes, organ works or other instrumental music. Much of Bach's music was made domestically available via such arrangements (and the tradition continued well into the twentieth century, even after Bach originals were well known). Indeed, the practice of such transcriptions was widely used by Bach himself, who freely adapted his own and others' music for different instrumental settings.
One of today's finest Bach pianists, Angela Hewitt concentrates primarily on those arrangements of Bach that keep pianistic elaboration and virtuosity in proportion: whatever instrument his music is played on, Bach should still sound like Bach. Eugen d'Albert's magnificent transcription of the C minor Passacaglia and Fugue for organ, BWV582, is included, as are five beautiful transcriptions by Wilhelm Kempff, and a number of arrangements by English composers that were included in A Bach Book for Harriet Cohen (a collection compiled for the pianist Harriet Cohen, who knew many English composers of the early twentieth century). Angela Hewitt also includes three transcriptions of her own. A fascinating companion to Angela Hewitt's acclaimed Bach recordings for Hyperion, this ravishing disc will appeal to lovers of Bach as much as connoisseurs of the piano.
Other recommended albums
On 11 March 1829 the twenty-year-old Felix Mendelssohn conducted Johann Sebastian Bach’s St Matthew Passion in Berlin. For this, the first performance of the work in the seventy-nine years since Bach’s death, he had rehearsed the choir of 158 singers and a full-sized modern orchestra (which he conducted from the piano, it seems by heart) for well over a year. The Berlin Singakademie was filled to the rafters and, according to his sister Fanny, an air of ‘solemn devotion’ pervaded the whole. It was hardly an ‘authentic’ performance in today’s terms, with Mendelssohn making huge cuts, changing the scoring of many passages, and re-assigning several solo parts in order to use singers from the Royal Opera. Nobody, however, complained about any of that. It was a revelation to all, and fulfilled the promise of the editor of the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, A B Marx, that it would ‘open the gates of a long-closed temple’. The point was not to get as close as possible to Bach’s intentions, but to bring his music to life in a way that would be understood by nineteenth-century audiences. Mendelssohn did the same, evidently, in his interpretation of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, ‘playing it with all possible crescendos, and pianos, and fortissimos, pedal of course, and doubling the octaves in the bass’. What would Johann Sebastian have thought of that?
Not only did this event act as a huge stimulus to other performances of pre-Classical music (Brahms was also part of the revival, conducting a large amount of early choral music while in Detmold and Vienna), but it heavily influenced composition in the nineteenth century. Mendelssohn wrote six Preludes and Fugues for piano (Op 35), Schumann several for pedal piano, Liszt composed his variations on Bach’s Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, Grieg wrote his suite ‘From Holberg’s Time’, and so the list goes on. Composer-pianists also began making their own arrangements of Bach’s works and including them in their recital programmes (much more so than the real thing which, as Wanda Landowska suggests, they must have found a bit bare). First and foremost of these was Ferruccio Busoni (1866–1924), who published eight volumes of his own Bach edition, including many transcriptions, and who considered Bach to be ‘the foundation of piano playing’. Franz Liszt, too, transcribed six of the big organ works to great effect. If there were objections, they would defend themselves saying that Bach and his contemporaries pinched music from each other all the time, and recycled works when it suited them. By bringing music of the past to the masses, they were doing the composers a service, even if it was in their own fashion. Not all composers agreed, however. Much later on, Hindemith stated in his book A Composer’s World (1952) that he considered the art of transcription on a level with ‘providing a nice painted skirt and jacket for the Venus de Milo’. Nowadays, at the beginning of the twenty-first century and after the huge early music revival and its preoccupation with ‘authenticity’, it is still possible to present such transcriptions and awaken interest in many a listener to a work previously unknown to them (or indeed shed a different light on music generally familiar). They will be cherished as long as performers, amateur or professional, want the challenge of playing something on an instrument for which it wasn’t originally conceived (and, in the case of Bach and the piano, is very different from the instrument known to the composer) simply to say in their own way how beautiful, wondrous, or monumental a certain work may be, and to share their enthusiasm for it.
Such is the case with the five transcriptions by the German pianist, Wilhelm Kempff (1895–1991) which open this recording. Born into a family of organists, he began playing the ‘king of instruments’ before he could reach the pedals, and by the age of ten could play and transpose all of the 48 preludes and fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier. As his father was also a choral conductor, he got to know all the cantatas while still in his childhood, conducting many of them himself in later years. He put together these Bach transcriptions in the 1910s and 1920s, largely inspired by Busoni’s performances in Berlin during his youth. He spoke of the latter’s ‘spiritualized sound’, a quality which is certainly present in Kempff’s own transcriptions recording made in 1975. For him, the piano was both organ and orchestra, and could produce sonorities to match either.
This is marvellously illustrated in the opening piece, the Sinfonia in D major from the Ratswahlkantate, BWV29 (‘Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir’ / ‘We thank you, God, we thank you’) – a work written by Bach in 1731 for the election of Leipzig city council. The original is a brilliant movement for organ solo and orchestra (complete with trumpets and drums), which is Bach’s own reworking of the first movement of the Partita in E major for unaccompanied violin, BWV1006. It was after Kempff had played the original obbligato organ part on the piano at a concert in Berlin conducted by another famous Bach pianist, Edwin Fischer, that he decided to replicate the sound of the orchestra in his own transcription for piano. This it certainly does! Kempff marked it ‘Allegro pomposo’, and inserted the word ‘glorioso’ at the first big build-up before the long decrescendo. It remained one of his favourite encores throughout his career.
The only transcription in this recording that does not originate from a cantata or an organ work by Bach is the touching Siciliano in G minor. It is in fact the second movement of the Sonata in E flat major for flute and harpsichord, BWV1031, whose theme is tender and haunting. The work was probably written in 1741 for the concerts of Leipzig’s Collegium Musicum which Bach directed. Kempff’s transcription is dedicated to Albert Schweitzer, the eminent Bach biographer and organist, but also a theologian, philosopher and medical missionary.
At the centre of Bach’s musical heritage was the chorale – a communal song of faith that played a significant part in the Protestant church. Martin Luther once declared: ‘Music is a gift of God. It removes from the heart the weight of sorrow and the fascination of evil thoughts.’ Their healing power was all the more for being sung by the entire congregation, joining together in their praise of the Almighty. It is significant that chorale preludes for organ were among Bach’s earliest compositions, and were with him on his deathbed when he is said to have dictated ‘Before thy throne I stand’ to a pupil. He wrote nearly a hundred of them, most of which are grouped in different collections.
Jacob Adlung, a German organist of the time, described the three purposes for chorale preludes: first, to prepare the congregation for the key; second, to inform them of the tune; and third, to delight them through fluent ideas (durch wohlfiessende Gedanken). Without a doubt, Bach was most interested in the third possibility. This is probably what annoyed, rather than delighted, the Church authorities in Arnstadt, his first professional posting, when they scolded him ‘for having made many curious variationes in the chorale, and mingled many strange tones in it, and for the fact that the congregation has been confused by it’. Bach wasn’t to be stopped in his tracks, so instead moved on to a more enlightened town.
The first of the chorale preludes in this recital of transcriptions is Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV659. It is marked ‘Adagio’ by Kempff and preceded by the text of the Advent hymn of Martin Luther (1524) which was taken from the Latin of St Ambrose:
Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland,
Come now, Saviour of the heathen,
The slow unfolding of the highly expressive cantus firmus is accompanied by beautiful counterpoint, frequently using two-note sighing figures. It is included in the ‘Leipzig Chorales’ (or the ‘Eighteen’ as it is more generally known) – a collection of chorales which Bach put together in his last years, most of which probably existed in earlier versions dating from his Weimar period. There are three chorale preludes with this title in the same collection – all very different from each other. Kempff’s transcription beautifully retains the sense of longing and mystery of the original.
A perfect example of how Bach used the same music in different scorings is the well-known chorale prelude for organ, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV645 (‘Awake, the voice is sounding’) which also appears as the fourth movement of the cantata of the same name, No 140, where it is titled ‘Zion hört die Wächter singen’. The organ prelude is a trio, with the hymn tune ringing out in the left hand below a swinging, almost ‘catchy’ counter-melody in the right, the whole above a springy bass in the pedals. In the cantata version, the chorale is sung by a tenor soloist, the other melody is played by the strings, with the continuo filling in a figured bass. It is this latter version that Kempff is thinking of in his transcription. The words come from the second verse of the hymn by Philipp Nicolai (1599). Sung at the end of the Church year, before Advent, the initial call of ‘Sleepers, wake!’ is followed by ‘Arise, the bridegroom is coming, prepare for the wedding!’. The bride, Zion, reacts:
Zion hört die Wächter singen,
Zion hears the watchmen singing,
Transcriptions are often awkward to play because of their very nature, and this one demands that the counter-melody be played by the outer, weaker fingers of the right hand. Kempff talked about the importance of a true legato (necessary for any good Bach playing), and it is just as important in his transcriptions as in the ‘real’ Bach.
The most famous collection of organ chorale preludes by Bach is the Orgelbüchlein (‘Little Organ Book’) which he probably composed in Weimar between 1713 and 1716. Originally envisaged as a volume of 164 pieces (he began by ruling up 182 pages and inserting the titles), he completed only 45 – why, we don’t exactly know. What Bach did achieve in this collection, however, was a new form of chorale prelude where the melody of the hymn was played, usually in the upper voice, sometimes but not always embellished, with the thematic motives of the accompanying voices somehow related to the emotional or theological content. We know from a title-page that Bach added later on that they were also meant as teaching material with special emphasis on developing pedal technique. For this recording I have chosen five of the chorale preludes from the Orgelbüchlein – all of which are gems.
The first is another Kempff transcription, Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV639. This is a hymn of supplication, and the only trio in the collection. Of course the tune is beautiful, but it is the middle voice, whose constant semiquavers unhurriedly fill in the harmonies, and the throbbing, pulsating bass which add the shape and colour to match the words:
Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ,
I call to Thee, Lord Jesus Christ,
Certainly one of the most popular melodies in this recording, at least in English-speaking countries, is that of Sheep may safely graze. It comes from the so-called ‘Hunt Cantata’ – No 208, Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd! (‘My only delight is the merry chase’), a birthday cantata written in 1713 for Duke Christian of Sachsen-Weissenfels. It is Bach’s first known secular cantata, and one of the few he wrote during his Weimar period. The duke liked to imagine he was another Louis XIV, trying to emulate life at Versailles, and his birthday celebrations lasted several days. He was an enthusiastic huntsman, so the libretto, written by Salomo Franck, uses the classical legend of the goddess Diana. This aria and recitative is sung by Pales, a mythical figure of dubious gender, but here representing the goddess of crops and pastures. The duke was no doubt pleased by the praise he received:
Recitative: Shall Pales be the last to offer a sacrifice? No! No! I would also forsake my duties, and as the whole sovereignty rings with cheers, let even my beautiful pastures honour the hero of Saxony with me, to bring him joy and happiness.
Aria: Sheep may safely graze where a caring shepherd guards them. Where a regent reigns well, we may have security and peace and things that let a country prosper.
It is scored for soprano, two flutes, and continuo. So much for the original. The excellent transcription is by the American composer, Mary Howe (1882–1964). Born in Richmond, Virginia, she studied both piano and composition at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, and was for a short time in the 1930s with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. She was a founder of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., and along with Amy Beach helped organize the Society of American Women Composers in 1925. This piece is one of my favourite encores.
Myra Hess’s transcription of Jesu, joy of man’s desiring brought Bach to the masses during the Second World War. Her famous lunchtime concerts broadcast live from The National Gallery in London were aimed to boost morale, and people still talk of them today. Of this time she said: ‘Never have I practised so little and played so much!’ Born in 1890, she studied with Tobias Matthay and, after her debut with Sir Thomas Beecham, toured extensively in the USA and Europe. Grove’s 1954 dictionary describes her as ‘among an elite of pianists who approached their instrument as a means of conveying music as a spiritual experience’. Jesu, joy quickly became her signature tune after she first heard the original at a rehearsal for a Bach Festival given in April 1920. It is the last movement from the Cantata No 147, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (‘Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life’) where it is sung by the chorus with trumpet doubling the melody. Strings and continuo provide the accompaniment, with oboes joining the violins for the triplets. The rise and fall in the dynamic level of the chorale mirrors the words:
Wohl mir, daß ich Jesum habe,
Jesu, joy of man’s desiring,
The ability to translate spirituality into sound at the keyboard is certainly necessary here – otherwise such a famous tune sounds banal and hackneyed. Besides Hess’s own, there have been other famous pianists’ recordings of this transcription including those by Lipatti and Gieseking, while Kempff recorded his own arrangement.
Staying in the ‘benedictory’ key of G major (as Wilfrid Mellers calls it), we come to the first of my own transcriptions, all taken from the Orgelbüchlein. Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein, BWV641 is based on the same melody as the chorale prelude Bach dictated on his deathbed – a tune by Louis Bourgeois, dated 1547. The text for the hymn is as follows:
Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein
When in the hour of utmost need
As in all three of my transcriptions, I have stayed extremely close to the original, simply doubling the pedal part, and occasionally moving a voice to another octave if need be. This chorale prelude is an arabesque – a florid, serene melody which, after staying within a fairly small range, soars upwards in the second last phrase, mirroring the words ‘And cry, O faithful God, to Thee’. The accompaniment constantly refers to the first four notes of the hymn tune.
In his setting of Das alte Jahr vergangen ist, BWV614, Bach opts for a mood far removed from that of most modern-day festivities. For him the end of the year was a time for contemplation, evaluation, and thankfulness. The constant chromatic lines, both ascending and descending, and the rather bleak harmonies create a feeling of introspection. Once more the original tune (dating from 1588) is elaborately decorated. The opening verse of the hymn is that which seems to suit the music best:
Das alte Jahr vergangen ist:
The old year hath passed away
When considering which transcriptions to include in this recording, I remembered having once seen some music on a friend’s piano which I had not come across before. It was entitled A Bach Book for Harriet Cohen, and I was intrigued. Harriet Cohen (1895–1967) was an English pianist, especially known for two things: her interpretations of the music of Bach, and her devotion to the works of British composers of her time, many of which she premiered. In her memoirs (A Bundle of Time, London, 1969), she tells of how this Bach Book came about:
At this time  Oxford University Press were negotiating an exciting new project with me. Several composers, knowing of my special devotion to Bach, transcribed some of his works for organ, song or strings, so that I could play them to myself. One told the other about it until I had about ten arrangements. Oxford Press heard about these ‘acts of homage’ and decided to publish them – if such a difficult project could be arranged. Elgar told me he’d try his best to do one, but in the event this did not materialize. Holst couldn’t find anything he wanted to arrange, and anyway didn’t feel that he could tackle the piano. I had written to Vaughan Williams to transcribe something for me, offering many more kisses although I owed him a lot from the Hymn-Tune. He answered: ‘How can I say “no” – when such a reward will be mine if I say “yes”? I shall claim it to the full (and the 1580th).’ His and ones from Bantock, Bax, Ireland, Bliss, Berners, Bridge, Howells, Goossens, Lambert, Walton and Whittaker finally arrived; everything was amicably decided and the title of the album would be – A Bach Book for Harriet Cohen.
It was published in 1932, and Cohen mentions performances of it both in New York and at Queen’s Hall in London. In the programme for the latter (a joint concert with Lionel Tertis), there was a foreword by one of the contributors which read:
This collection of arrangements from Bach’s music is intended by the adaptors as a tribute to the executant who has done more than any other to further the cause of British piano and concerted music, both here and abroad. Miss Cohen has, indeed, given first performances of works by no fewer than seven of the English composers concerned in this compilation.
She has always been an intense enthusiast for the music of Bach (not alone of his keyboard writings), and her composer friends considered that a collection such as this would furnish an opportunity of providing her with accessible piano versions of certain fine things originally composed for the organ, voice, or some orchestral combination.
George Bernard Shaw, a close friend of Harriet Cohen, nicknamed it ‘Five-finger Exercises for Harriet by Infatuated Celebrities’ (Cohen was in fact the mistress of Arnold Bax). Not all the pieces are on the same level of inspiration. From the original twelve, I have chosen four to include in this recording.
The first one is by Lord Berners (born in 1883 with the name Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson; died in 1950). He was the son of a naval officer who served as a diplomat from 1909 to 1920. Due to his sense of humour, and for the fact that he both painted and composed at the same time, he became known as the ‘English Satie’. His contribution to the Bach Book is a transcription of a chorale prelude for organ, In dulci jubilo, BWV729. This is not the one of the same name from the Orgelbüchlein, but rather a separate work that was probably written in Bach’s Weimar period. It shows another use for the chorale prelude – one in which the organist extemporizes brief interludes between the lines of the hymn. It must have been confusing for the congregation at times to hear a familiar tune bathed in such florid and brilliant goings-on as we have here! In the 1930s the piece was introduced as the Postlude of the famous Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge, by the then organ scholar Douglas Guest – a tradition that continues to this day. Lord Berners really doesn’t fiddle about much with the original at all – only a few bass notes are added to fill out the pedal part. Both the words and tune are medieval:
In dulci jubilo
In dulci jubilo
One of the most beautiful chorale tunes comes next with the transcription of Herzlich tut mich verlangen, BWV727 by William Walton (1902–1983). This must have been one of Bach’s favourite chorales as he used it five times in the St Matthew Passion (the numerological symbol for the Crucifixion), twice in the Christmas Oratorio, in two cantatas, and in this chorale prelude for organ. The melody by Leo Hassler (1601) has been set to many different texts, this one by Christoph Knoll (1605):
Herzlich tut mich verlangen
Lord, hear my deepest longing
Walton finds a particularly good solution to the problem of transcribing the last two bars for piano. On the organ, the F sharp in the top voice is sustained throughout merely by holding down the note. On the piano, of course, it soon dies away. By repeating it in syncopation, he makes it last to the end, while at the same time clashing expressively with the E sharp in the bass. The slight detachment of the pedal part in the middle of the prelude follows Walton’s own marking.
John Ireland (1879–1962) chose yet another organ chorale prelude as his contribution – the brief Meine Seele erhebt den Herrn, BWV648 (‘My soul doth magnify the Lord’). Like the famous ‘Wachet auf’, this comes from the ‘Schübler’ Chorales – a collection of six preludes, the engraving and publication of which was arranged in Bach’s lifetime by his pupil, Georg Schübler. The chorale tune is plainsong (tonus peregrinus), and the text is that of the Magnificat:
My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. (Luke 1: 46–55)
The exact same music also appears in Cantata No 10 of the same title, first sung on the Feast of the Visitation in 1724. There the scoring is for alto and tenor soloists, trumpet, bassoon and organ. Here Bach sets the words:
Er denket der Barmherzigkeit
And mindful of his mercy,
Certainly the fugal counterpoint that Bach weaves around the cantus firmus is more interesting than the tune itself. Ireland remains totally faithful to the original.
For me, the gem of this Bach Book is the transcription by Herbert Howells (1892–1983) of O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde gross, BWV622, an organ chorale prelude for Passiontide taken from the Orgelbüchlein. Once again, he adheres very closely to the original (I have added a few things from the latter which he unaccountably leaves out), but in so doing creates a work for piano which is totally suited to that instrument, though very difficult to play well. Bach’s harmonic progressions here are amazing. In fact, anyone not familiar with the original would probably think that Howells had added quite a bit! The words (Sebald Heyden, 1525) are beautifully portrayed with the almost constant use of a four-note descending figure (which ascends as well) underneath an elaborate solo melody.
O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß,
O man, bewail thy grievous sins
The words in the last line are matched by a C flat in the harmony, a daring and astounding progression for the time. As Ernest Newman writes in the introduction to Harvey Grace’s The Organ Works of Bach:
No doubt Bach’s friends and pupils thought ‘Das alte Jahr vergangen ist’ and ‘O Mench, bewein’ dein’ Sünde gross’ very fine things, but I make bold to say that they had no such idea of the wonderfulness of them as we have who have been through ‘Tristan’. The developments of poetic music in the 19th century, in the opera, the symphonic poem, and the song, have sharpened our senses for the poetry of Bach.
This chorale was also used as the basis for a huge fantasia ending the first part of the St Matthew Passion (which in turn was taken from the second version of the St John Passion). The original tune was written by Mathias Greitter in 1525.
Harriet Cohen herself made several Bach transcriptions in 1924 that she performed frequently. One of these is Sanctify us by Thy goodness (‘Ertöt’ uns durch dein’ Güte’) from Cantata No 22, ‘Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe’ (‘Jesus took to him the twelve’). The cantata was first performed on 7 February 1723 – one of the very few works of this kind that Bach wrote while in Köthen. This is the final chorus, scored for oboe, strings, bassoon, organ and chorus. The English title given by Harriet Cohen does not truly translate the first line of the text which should read:
Ertöt’ uns durch dein’ Güte,
Mortify us through kindness,
Cohen’s own recording of this transcription includes a massive rallentando at the end which I have tempered slightly.
Harold Bauer (1873–1951) was born in Kingston-on-Thames and received his first musical training on the violin. It was only much later that he decided to switch to the piano (after being persuaded by Paderewski who praised his beautiful tone, adding, ‘besides, you have such beautiful hair’!). In 1893 he went to Paris where he stayed for twenty years (and became the dedicatee of Ravel’s Ondine). In 1900 he made his American debut giving the Boston premiere of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto with the Boston Symphony. He was considered one of the greatest pianists of his time, and a true successor to the tradition of Liszt, Paderewski and Brahms. His legendary Bach recitals in London in the 1920s introduced many listeners to the music of the German master. For the publishing house Schirmer he made many editions, including several of the works of Bach.
Die Seele ruht in Jesu Händen is the most freely adapted transcription on this CD. It comes from Cantata No 127, ‘Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott’ (‘Thou who, a God, as man yet came’), first performed in Leipzig in 1725. You would never guess from Bauer’s transcription that the original soprano aria has an obbligato part for solo oboe (cello would be a better guess, as this part appears, for the most part, in the low register) with the accompaniment of two flutes. The re-location of register turns out to be a good idea, though, as it separates the two voices distinctly on the keyboard. The text from the cantata which portrays the soul longing for death is as follows:
Die Seele ruht in Jesu Händen,
My soul will rest in Jesus’ keeping,
As is the case with Howells’s transcription of ‘O Mensch, bewein’, the harmonies that really surprise us are pure Bach – not modern additions. The contrasting middle section in the major key introduces the strings playing pizzicato and the ‘death knells’ of the text. Where we most see the romantic influence of this arrangement is in Bauer’s treatment of the da capo, where he makes a bridge of truly Brahmsian character back to the beginning (and then makes a cut in the original). No one can say, however, that he doesn’t beautifully capture the poignant sadness of this extraordinary aria.
Eugen d’Albert (1864–1932) was another virtuoso pianist attracted to the music of Bach. Born in Glasgow to a French father and a German mother, he studied briefly with Sir Arthur Sullivan in London but then found his spiritual home in Germany where he became one of Liszt’s most brilliant pupils. In fact he so disliked being called an ‘English’ pianist that in 1884 he wrote:
Unfortunately I studied for a considerable period in that land of fogs, but during that time I learned absolutely nothing; indeed, had I remained there much longer, I should have gone to utter ruin … only since I left that barbarous land have I begun to live. And I live now for the unique, true, glorious, German art.
His life was tempestuous (six wives), his career as a virtuoso short due to his greater interest in composition. His transcription of one of Bach’s greatest organ works, the Passacaglia in C minor, BWV582 shows what a flair he must have had at the keyboard, and why Liszt called him a ‘second Tausig’ and ‘our young lion’. He does manage, nevertheless, to stay remarkably close to the original, even if his frequent change of dynamics and tempi are very much of their time. I find his articulations and phrasing very close to what I would imagine Bach wanted, and the overall ‘editing’ of the work very convincing. I have changed a few things to be closer to Bach rather than d’Albert (beginning the trills from the upper note, for instance!), but these are minor adjustments.
So much for d’Albert. What is Bach saying in this piece? A passacaglia is a set of variations over a ground bass (constantly repeating itself). The first half of the theme Bach uses for this one was borrowed from a passacaglia by the French composer André Raison (1650–1720). The twenty variations and fugue which follow are grouped so as to provide points of maximum tension and release. There is some discussion as to whether or not it was originally intended for a two-manual pedal harpsichord rather than the organ, which I think is plausible. Recent research also dates the work to Bach’s time in Arnstadt (1703–1707) when he was clearly influenced by his hearing Buxtehude in Lübeck. The fugue is not a separate entity but rather an integral part of the passacaglia, using the first part of the theme as its subject, along with a persistent countersubject that greatly adds to the culminating excitement. It is refreshing to hear the passacaglia theme break out in different keys rather than simply restating it in the tonic as was the case in the variations. In the last few lines the music comes to a brief halt on a Neapolitan sixth chord (D flat major). As Peter Williams says: ‘Even a Neapolitan sixth can never sound as well as it does at the end of this fugue; theoretically the effect is ordinary, but in its context the chord is magnificent.’ I’m not surprised that d’Albert chose to transcribe this particular work, as I’m sure he had the drama and power to match.
To end this recital of transcriptions, I have chosen one last chorale from the Little Organ Book, Alle Menschen müssen sterben, BWV643 (‘All mankind must die’). This is my own arrangement which I have played as an encore for many years. The text speaks for itself:
Alle Menschen müssen sterben,
Hark! A voice saith, ‘All are mortal,
This hymn for the dying originated in 1652, with the anonymous melody dating from 1687. Bach gives it the simple treatment, presenting the chorale in the top voice (which I double with the lower octave on the repeat of the first stanza to change the colour) over an ever-present rhythmic motive. The latter is often seen to be the ‘joy motive’ in Bach, which is why this chorale prelude is sometimes heard in a rather quick tempo. I don’t see it that way. Death was certainly, in Bach’s Lutheran creed, a welcome relief from the burdens of life on earth, and the gate to eternal life, but surely it is a more contemplative joy that is being expressed here. The false relation between the C sharp and the C natural in the last bar cannot be heard properly in too fast a tempo. So much of Bach’s greatest music was written on the theme of death: after all, he was no stranger to it, having lost both his parents by the age of ten, his first wife while he was away from home, and eleven of his twenty children. This short prelude captures, in just a few lines, his faith, his joy, and, above all, his musical perfection. I am reminded of what Mendelssohn said after Schumann played him a chorale prelude:
The melody seemed interlaced with garlands of gold, evoking in me the thought: were life deprived of all trust, all faith, this chorale would restore it in me.
Angela Hewitt © 2001
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