'Time and again you are reminded of real technique as opposed to a more familiar, glib and colourless alternative, and it is surely no exaggeration to say that if such playing is anything to go by you are listening to one of the finest living pianists; the possessor of qualities that should no longer remain a secret. Hyperion's sound is of demonstration quality, a crowning touch to musical and pianistic greatness. These are treasurable records' (Gramophone)
'This is a major addition to the catalogue and one of the finest piano recordings of recent years' (Classic FM Magazine)
'The English pianist Jonathan Plowright performs all of these pieces to perfection: his technical gifts shine in the complex textures…but he can handle simple and poetic works [just fine too]' (American Record Guide)
'Rummel's background was cosmopolitan. He died in 1953 in his late sixties, and left a few recordings but nothing that I've heard even begins to compare with the rapt and refined playing of Jonathan Plowright on these remarkable CDs' (The Independent)
'Amazing too is Jonathan Plowright's ability to project these pieces while keeping every voice and nuance in balance. Performances of rare identification and understanding make this a very special release in Hyperion's Bach Piano Transcriptions series' (BBC Music Magazine)
'As Charles Timbrell outlines in his excellent liner notes, Rummel went to great pains to weave the complexity of musical lines into one organic whole, and Plowright is alive to every nuance and detail. Plowright and Hyperion have done an excellent job in putting Rummel back on the musical map' (Pianist)
'I really can't imagine Rummel's particular vision of this music being more vibrantly brought to life' (International Record Review)
'For all their stylish anachronisms, the transcriptions undoubtedly illuminate the music's inherent beauty and spiritual aura. So does Jonathan Plowright's beautiful tone and unruffled technique. This is masterly, transcendent piano playing on every level...one of the loveliest piano releases of 2006' (Classics Today)
'Those who enjoy transcriptions for their aesthetic clashes should find these generally unfamiliar works a delightful acquaintance. Jonathan Plowright plays splendidly. Fine sound too. Warmly welcomed' (Fanfare, USA)
'The English pianist Jonathan Plowright performs all of these pieces to perfection' (American Record Guide)
This sixth volume in Hyperion’s voyage through the distinguished legacy of piano transcriptions of Bach masterpieces brings us to a fascinating programme presenting the twenty-five surviving transcriptions by Walter Rummel.
Pupil of Godowsky, friend of Debussy and favourably compared to Cortot and Horowitz, Rummel left us recordings instantly conveying that essential combination of robust articulation and sensitive flexibility which must inform the outlook of the master-transcriber. The majority of Rummel’s transcriptions turn away from the standard fare of organ preludes, rather delving into the immeasurable riches to be found among Bach’s choral works, and at the same time mastering the difficulties inherent in condensing the numerous musical lines of a choir and orchestra into a meaningful piano score.
Jonathan Plowright’s exquisite performances embody the tradition of that golden age of pianism from which these transcriptions emerged—in Rummel’s own words: ‘The composer bewitches music, holding it captive behind the prison of five lines; but the interpreter breaks the spell that holds the bewitched princess, he frees Music.’
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We can compare Bach’s chorales and arias to the rose windows of cathedrals, in which reflections continually change from brilliant major to somber minor. These rose windows are the soul of the cathedrals and they speak to the innermost part of human beings. So too do Bach’s chorales and arias. They constitute the romantic element of his immense output and they speak to us like no other romanticism. (Walter Rummel: Credo d’un artiste )
Walter Rummel (1887–1953) was the personification of romanticism, a free-spirited individualist drawn constantly to the past, a dreamer always in pursuit of lofty ideals. He was an avid reader of Greek philosophy and medieval poetry, but he also had a lifelong scholarly interest in religion, filling many of his notebooks with passages copied from Thomas Aquinas, St Augustine, Bede and others. He also read books on medieval music, Spanish musical mysticism of the sixteenth century, and spirituality in Bach’s works. Given these preoccupations it is not surprising that he was drawn to Bach and especially to his vocal music.
Rummel’s transcriptions, published between 1922 and 1938 by J & W Chester in London, were among the first of their kind. Previous transcribers—from Liszt to Tausig, d’Albert, Siloti, Friedman, Busoni and Szántó—had devoted themselves almost entirely to Bach’s works for organ or violin. Saint-Saëns was the sole major transcriber to turn his attention to the vocal music, producing eight transcriptions from the cantatas. By contrast, twenty-two of Rummel’s twenty-five surviving transcriptions are drawn from Bach’s vocal works.
Rummel was born and raised in Berlin in an intensely musical household. His mother, a gifted amateur pianist, was the daughter of Samuel F B Morse, the American artist and inventor of the telegraph. His father was Franz Rummel, a well-known British pianist who had studied with Moscheles’ student Louis Brassin and had played for Liszt and Anton Rubinstein. Walter’s two older brothers played the violin and the cello proficiently, so there was an endless stream of music in their home, including visits from singers, pianists, chamber musicians, and even Mathilde Wesendonck, Wagner’s famous muse. Franz had a major career in Europe, England, the United States and Russia, including concerto performances conducted by Tchaikovsky and Rubinstein. When Franz died prematurely in 1901, Walter and his mother relocated to Washington, D.C., where he continued his piano studies with a former student of Moszkowski and Liszt. In 1904, on the advice of Paderewski, he moved back to Berlin, where he studied piano for five years with Leopold Godowsky and composition with Hugo Kaun. In 1907 he became an American citizen through his mother and the following year he made an acclaimed double debut in Berlin as pianist and composer. His first published songs, which date from this period, were championed by many leading singers of the day, including Ernestine Schumann-Heink, Maggie Teyte and John McCormack.
According to his recollections, he attended more than two hundred concerts a year during his student years in Berlin, hearing Godowsky and Busoni especially often. In a letter to an American friend in 1908, he provides some details:
Enclosed is a programme of Rudolph Ganz’s concert […] Last week [cellist Jean] Gerardy played beautifully and Busoni played with his pupil Petri for two pianos. It was a great affair to see them both do it. Petri has almost as wonderful a technic as Busoni but also as little soul in his playing. Zadora played Debussy and Busoni the Saturday before with his usual overflow of technic […] Tuesday Godowsky plays a new concert arrangement of ‘Wine, Women and Song Waltz’ by Joh. Strauss and several new Rameau arrangements […] Wednesday is the premiere of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. I am going and am very anxious to hear it […] Busoni has moved [and] he wants me to notify you of the change of address.
By this time he certainly was familiar with Busoni’s Bach transcriptions, all of which had been published by 1900.
In 1909 Rummel moved to Paris, where he soon became a friend of Debussy and premiered ten of his works. In 1912 he married Thérèse Chaigneau, a gifted French pianist, and they performed often together in Paris and London, including Bach’s concertos for two and three keyboards (with Harold Bauer and Ossip Gabrilowitsch, conducted by Pablo Casals and Henry Wood) and the premiere of Debussy’s suite En blanc et noir. In 1916 he played a wartime charity recital in Paris that included the first known performances of several of his transcriptions of Bach’s chorale preludes. (Unfortunately, the titles were not listed, nor are they known for the private occasions on which he played them for Debussy and his guests, as reported in the memoires of the conductor Ernest Ansermet.)
In February 1920 he played a recital in Paris that included five of his transcriptions of chorale preludes. Placed after Beethoven’s Sonata Op 110 as the last works on the programme, they included Ach wie nichtig, ach wie flüchtig; Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier; Das alte Jahr vergangen ist; In dulci jubilo; and Ich ruf’ zu dir. A reviewer wrote that his ‘technical mastery and personal and moving musical understanding made him one of the most winning and significant of pianists’ (Le Monde musical, 31 March 1920).
Rummel’s international career began in earnest during the 1921–2 season, and his repertoire during the next three decades featured many Beethoven sonatas, Schubert’s Sonata in B flat major, Chopin’s two sonatas and numerous shorter works, Schumann’s C major Fantasy, Brahms’s Sonata in F minor, Liszt’s Sonata and most of the Années de pèlerinage, Balakirev’s Islamey, and works by Debussy, Ravel, Honegger and Villa-Lobos. Critics compared him favourably with Alfred Cortot and Vladimir Horowitz, and a fine summary of his style—borne out by his recordings of Bach, Chopin, and Liszt—was made by a Paris reviewer: ‘The playing of this great pianist is brilliant, robust, marvellously articulated, sensitive, and of such flexibility that it gives the impression of a ceaseless and ardent improvisation’ (Le Courrier musical, 1 January 1928).
His important performances with orchestra included Beethoven’s Concerto No 3 in C minor (Henry Wood conducting the Queen’s Hall Orchestra in 1923), Liszt’s Concerto No 1 in E flat major (Felix Weingartner conducting the Manchester Philharmonic in 1923), Rachmaninov’s Concerto No 2 in C minor (Reynaldo Hahn conducting the Cannes Orchestra in 1924), Schumann’s A minor Concerto (Désiré Defauw conducting the Orchestre des Concerts Defauw in 1926), and Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No 1 in B flat minor (Willem Mengelberg conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1928). After their Tchaikovsky performance, Mengelberg proclaimed that ‘Rummel is one of the greatest pianists I know’.
As the political and economic situation in Europe worsened during the 1930s, Rummel unfortunately allowed himself to be influenced by the pro-German leanings of his third wife, a Russian poet. During the early 1940s, he played concerts in Germany and the occupied countries as an American, even after the United States had entered the war. Eventually the Germans refused to protect him unless he took German citizenship, which he did in 1944. Three years later, he and his wife returned to live in France, where he successfully resumed his career before dying of spinal cancer on 1 May 1953.
Bach and transcriptions of Bach enjoyed prominent positions on many of Rummel’s programmes, as on 3 May 1922 at the Salle des Agriculteurs in Paris when he followed Busoni’s transcription of Bach’s Prelude and Triple Fugue in E flat major (‘St Anne’) with three preludes and fugues from the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier (B flat minor, F minor, D major) and three of his own transcriptions of chorale preludes; the second half consisted of Schubert’s Impromptu in B flat major and a group of Wagner transcriptions by Liszt and Brassin. More austere was this programme, played at Wigmore Hall in London on 16 June 1922:
Bach: Toccata in F sharp minor
After this programme he received one of his finest reviews as a Bach player. A London critic wrote: ‘When Mr Rummel plays Bach neither his technique nor his personality obtrude, he so completely identifies himself with the spirit of the composer that we are conscious of nothing but a dazzling clarity; it is no exaggeration to say that we are en rapport with the musical idea in Bach’s mind before it took its final lifeless form in printer’s ink’ (The Spectator, 1 July 1922).
Rummel also performed all-Bach recitals as part of his cycles of single-composer programmes devoted to Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, Brahms and Liszt. He played these cycles in 1920 in Paris, in 1924 in London, in 1941 in Paris, Brussels, and Antwerp, and in Paris in 1950. His Bach recital in Brussels on 25 September 1941 consisted of:
Bach: Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, Partita in B flat major, Prelude and Fugue in B flat minor (WTC, Book I), Toccata in D minor
His recital programmes and his choice of works to transcribe reflect a musical personality that was both Apollonian and Dionysian. He was as attracted to the clarity and structure of a complex Bach fugue as he was to the unbridled virtuosity of a Liszt étude. His transcriptions range from the extreme intimacy of Liebster Jesu to the thrilling orchestral sonorities of the Michaelis-Ouverture and O Gott, du frommer Gott!, where the limits of the piano—and the pianist—are put to a severe test. The influence of Busoni is reflected in his abundant interpolations, including octave doublings, tempo and mood indications (as in ‘Largo—with an objective calm’ for Liebster Jesu), dynamics, arpeggiations, pedalling, phrase marks, articulations (staccato, portamento, tenuto and legato), and added or omitted ornaments.
Rummel’s point of view about transcribing and performing is expressed well in one of his programme notes:
The deep study of the musical text is as important for the musician–interpreter as the study of fingerprints is for the detective. In truth, the interpreter is the detective of musical sounds and rhythms […] The composer bewitches music, holding it captive behind the prison of five lines; but the interpreter breaks the spell that holds the bewitched princess, he frees Music (‘Pensées musicales’, in a programme booklet for 27 November 1929, Salle Pleyel).
The majority of Rummel’s twenty-five transcriptions, which were always identified as ‘adaptations’ and ‘Übertragungen’ on the title pages, are from cantatas scored for voices and orchestra. The main challenge therefore lay in the need to condense sometimes eight or more simultaneous musical lines into a coherent and idiomatic piano setting—or, in the words of one of his prefaces, ‘to distribute the dynamic planes harmoniously, avoiding monotony and harshness’. By choosing this repertoire, Rummel clearly set for himself a greater task than that set by transcribers of Bach’s organ or violin music. The selection of works undoubtedly reflected his deep religious faith, for he had been raised in a family that included Calvinist ministers (on his mother’s side) and he had become—by 1922, when all twenty-five transcriptions were announced by title—an ardent follower of the religious thinker Rudolf Steiner.
Many of the transcriptions are quite thickly scored, with octave doublings at the extremes of the keyboard and with chords of four or five notes in each hand, all held together with generous pedalling. But even in these instances, clarity is never sacrificed for a love of bold sonority. (It is worth noting that by the time of his Bach transcriptions he had orchestrated a number of his own original compositions and performed some of his own Wagner transcriptions, as well as ones by Liszt and Brassin.) Admittedly, in the movements from cantatas Nos 94 and 99 and the chorale—Jesus Christus, Gottes Sohn—from Cantata No 4, the always effective piano-writing offers an alternative view to the transparency of Bach’s conceptions; and, in the first two instances, it demands less lively tempos than a conductor might prefer. Rummel was careful to point out in his prefaces that his transcriptions were always ‘in accordance’ with the Bach-Gesellschaft edition, and that ‘no item not inherent in the tonal and rhythmic structure of the original has been added in these adaptations except when specially noted’. Though purists may be alarmed by his extreme use of octave doubling in the overture to Cantata No 146 (an early version of the D minor keyboard concerto), they must surely admire his simple, thin scoring of the aria from Cantata No 94 (Die Welt ist wie ein Rauch und Schatten) and the duet from Cantata No 78 (Wir eilen mit schwachen, doch emsigen Schritten), which could not be more apt or more lovely. His sense of good keyboard-writing is evident whenever he places a strong chorale melody in the middle range of the keyboard, where it carries as well as a chorus might above an orchestra. Equally telling is his unusual fondness for the piano’s highest register, as in the bell-like sonorities for Vom Himmel hoch, da komm’ ich her and the selections from cantatas Nos 127 and 129. Pedal indications are given sparingly, usually for special effects, including flutter pedal and pedalled staccatos. He occasionally provided fingering, especially for double notes, and sometimes gave technical suggestions in his prefaces and footnotes (advising, for example, that the cembalo obbligato from Cantata No 203 could be practised with the left hand rewritten as an inversion of the right hand, thus allowing the same fingers in each hand to be exercised simultaneously).
Only three of Rummel’s transcriptions of chorale preludes have survived (he made an additional four, which he is known to have performed: Lobt Gott, ihr Christen, allzugleich; Jesu Leiden, Pein und Tod; In dulci jubilo; and Ich ruf’ zu dir). It is instructive to compare his version of Das alte Jahr vergangen ist with Bach’s original and Tausig’s chaste transcription. During the brief twelve bars, Rummel adds the indication tristamente to his tempo marking of Adagio and includes numerous octave doublings (including the lowest note on the piano), phrase marks, three sets of crescendo/decrescendo indications, a change to a B natural at the end of bar 7, and the omission of Bach’s final trill. Yet here, as in his vocal and orchestral transcriptions, little seems out of place or more than the ‘translation’ that a piano transcription must be.
Perhaps Rummel’s finest transcription is the one that gave him the most trouble, Die Seele ruht in Jesu Händen. According to his preface, he experimented for three months before deciding on the final version, which is a masterful tone poem in which Bach’s sublime melody is ‘orchestrated’ in different ranges and continuously surrounded by gentle arpeggiations that are held by the pedal, the whole providing an ideal piano reproduction of the sustained sound of the original string-writing. In Rummel’s words, the arpeggios ‘vivify the tone-vibrations otherwise too short-lived on an instrument like the piano’. Time seems to stand still during these twelve minutes of musical devotion, a masterpiece equal to Bach’s original and unique in the repertoire of Bach transcriptions.
Rummel’s pianism, like Busoni’s, was praised for its colourism, expressive freedom, wide dynamic range, and interpretative depth. We hear these qualities in the few recordings they left us and we perceive them equally well in the rich legacy of their Bach transcriptions.
Charles Timbrell © 2006
Other albums in this series
Bach: Piano Transcriptions, Vol. 4 – Samuel Feinberg
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