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Hyperion Records

CDA67506 - Bach: Piano Transcriptions, Vol. 5 – Goedicke, Kabalevsky, Catoire & Siloti
Front illustration by Julie Doucet (b?)

Recording details: October 2004
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Jeremy Hayes
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: May 2005
Total duration: 71 minutes 2 seconds

DISC OF THE MONTH (Pianist Magazine)

'Milne plays the more outgoing works with the sharp articulation and gestural clarity that makes his Medtner so refreshing (his left-hand profile is especially notable)—and he gives the more restrained of the Siloti bonbons (wisely scattered throughout the disc) the delicacy they need. Good sound and excellent notes. All in all, a fine continuation of a most welcome series' (Fanfare, USA)

'This is a welcome return to the recording studio for a British pianist who has maintained a consistently high standard for many years. Hamish Milne is associated with Russian music, so he is a natural choice for a selection of Russian music transcriptions—Volume Five of a hopefully long series from Hyperion … If we buy this CD, more will surely be recorded, so don't hesitate, please' (Pianist)

Piano Transcriptions, Vol. 5 – Goedicke, Kabalevsky, Catoire & Siloti
Russian Bach Piano Transcriptions
Prelude  [3'03]
Fugue  [4'25]
Prelude  [2'18]
Fugue  [5'57]
Toccata  [5'26]
Fugue  [8'25]

The fifth volume in Hyperion’s enlightening voyage through the distinguished legacy of piano transcriptions of Bach masterpieces brings us to a fascinating programme of Russian realizations. In his accompanying essay Hamish Milne makes an ardent case for the transcriber’s art, tracing a history of Bach performance through the ages which gives the lie to the conventional obscurity-before-Mendelssohn theory. A continuous tradition can be followed which sees Bach’s legacy constantly being reinvented in the language of the day, and nowhere was this tradition more vigorous than in Russia.

This recital is underpinned by monumental transcriptions by Goedicke and Catoire whose pianistic complexities comprehensively interpret those areas of performance practice, notably tempo and rubato, which Bach left to the performer’s instinct. At once audacious and characterful, these pillars of the genre are offset by delicate transcriptions by Alexander Siloti which serve as a fascinating and fastidious codification of the aristocratic pianism of the day.

Concluding Hamish Milne’s masterful programme comes Kabalevsky’s mighty transcription of the ‘Dorian’ Toccata and Fugue; whatever may be lacking in subtlety, one can hardly deny the thrilling power of the climaxes.

Hamish Milne’s performances are a revelation. In the monumental grandeur of his playing, contrasted with an exquisite range of colour and glorious singing lines, his playing embodies the tradition of the golden age of pianism from which these transcriptions emerged.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The arguments for and against transcriptions have been too well rehearsed to benefit from further expansion here. Nevertheless, the case for Bach transcriptions is a special one and has as its main plank the fact that he was himself an assiduous transcriber of others. More important than that, even, is the unique way in which everyone has their own opinion as to the meaning of his music. As the cellist Jiòí Bárta has aptly said: ‘While there are composers allowing us to come close to a seemingly definitive interpretation, with Johann Sebastian we are at a new start every day.’

The once popular belief that Bach languished unheard from his death until the revivals of Mendelssohn in Germany and Parry in England is a myth. In reality, his music was a close companion to all subsequent generations of composers. Mozart arranged some fugues for string trio, Czerny published a complete edition of The Well-Tempered Clavier and Schumann composed accompaniments for some of the solo violin works. Besides which, Beethoven’s Missa solemnis or his Op 131 string quartet are unimaginable without Bach. The common thread to all these publications is that, to a greater or lesser degree, they reinterpret Bach’s legacy in the language of the day. This was the accepted practice of the time. Ernst Roth – lawyer, musician and ultimately director of Boosey & Hawkes publishing house – wrote an unusually penetrating book in the 1960s entitled The Business of Music (Atlantis Verlag, Zurich, 1966). Such reinterpretation, he suggests, ‘was not done out of ignorance. There was a sincere attempt to prevent music from getting old, historical, a knowledge – perhaps unconscious – that music must live in order to exist, that a new generation must either appropriate it or abandon it.’ He further asserts: ‘They [modern editors] require the performer of an Urtext to be as much a historian as they are themselves. Unfortunately for them, but fortunately for the art, every performance will deviate individually from the text and will be in some peculiar way “modern”, the first and original performance having been lost for ever.’

Academic consensus as to the correct way to perform Bach is in a more or less constant state of flux. ‘Performance-practice issues’, so beloved of our age, are if anything more pronounced in these transcriptions than in the realization of the original scores. It seems hardly worth beginning if the performer cannot accept that his task here is to try and understand and identify with the conception and beliefs of the transcriber and to free himself from inhibitions instilled by the developments of his own time. But is this possible? Such simple precepts as beginning ornaments from above and on the beat are now so much the norm as to be instinctive. It can come as a shock to realize that there is on occasion no finger available to make this possible.

In The Lost Tradition in Music (A & C Black, London, 1953), Fritz Rothschild attempted to codify those hidden signals and triggers which enabled Bach generally to omit all indications of tempo, phrasing and expression, seemingly without fear of misunderstanding by contemporary performers. In a sense we can argue that similar principles apply to the interpretation of these transcriptions. Certainly in Goedicke’s fugues or Catoire’s passacaglia the pianistic complexity determines to a real extent not just the tempo but also the required degree of rubato.

As one would expect of Russian pianist–composers of this epoch, the emphasis is on the monumental grandeur of the music. The discreet piping of the baroque organ was probably quite unknown to them. An exception to this blanket observation was Alexander Il’yich Siloti (1863–1945), whose delicate transcriptions interleave the juggernauts in this collection. By inclination he eschews grandiloquence and elaboration in favour of intimate meditation. A pupil of Nicholas Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky, later of Liszt in Weimar, he was in turn one of the teachers of his cousin Rachmaninov. His reputation as a pianist and conductor of the highest distinction seems to have been unquestioned. After emigrating to New York in 1922 his public profile diminished but he remained a figure revered by his pupils and colleagues. He has the unusual distinction of having collaborated with the composer in Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto both as pianist and conductor. In the vigorous Prelude from Cantata No 35 it is not too fanciful to discern their common heritage in some of the pianistic layout which feels similar to aspects of Rachmaninov’s own transcription of Mendelssohn’s Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In all of his transcriptions his aristocratic pianistic pedigree is evidenced by the fastidious perfectionism of his writing. Nothing is left to chance; the scores, while superficially simple, are replete with meticulous pedal markings and copious fingerings which have little to do with keyboard manipulation but everything to do with achieving a distinctive sonority and phrasing. In general he seems to have been attracted to this music more by its noble melody and flawless harmonic paragraphs than by its intricacy of counterpoint or dramatic power.

The ebb and flow of harmonic tension in the sombre Adagio from the violin sonata in F minor is realized by means of a scrupulously plotted dynamic graph that would be frowned upon today, yet it captures the inexorable unity of the piece to perfection. The inherently subjective nature of our cherished musicological objectivity surfaces in the Andante from the A minor solo violin sonata. Siloti clearly believes that he has treated Bach’s text with irreproachable fidelity and even adds an apologetic note for transposing a couple of bars down an octave. Yet from the moment we hear the sumptuously voiced chords cushioning Bach’s sublime melody we know that we are in the hands of a master romantic pianist. In the original Bach-Gesellschaft edition there was a (rather weak) keyboard transcription of the whole sonata, but later research has pronounced it spurious. The notion that it may be the work of one of Bach’s sons adds a little spice to the speculation. The same Wilhelm Friedemann Bach was the lucky recipient of the little Prelude in B minor which was brought to a wider public in the recording age through Emil Gilels’ unforgettable rendering. The tradition which brings into prominence the hidden left-hand melody in the repeat comes, according to Siloti’s daughter Kyrenia, from the master himself! The Siciliano from the flute sonata in E flat major has been the object of several piano transcriptions (Alkan, Kempff, Friedman and others) as well as suffering the indignity of issuing as muzak from countless elevators and hotel lobbies. Siloti’s, without attempting anything extraordinary, is in my opinion simply the best. In the famous Air from the third orchestral suite, he is again scrupulously respectful to Bach’s text, but his imaginative use of the pedal and the extraordinarily expressive fingerings are of a different epoch.

Alexander Fyodorovich Goedicke (1877–1957) numbers among a sizeable group of fine Russian musicians who virtually disappeared from view in the Soviet age, displaying neither the rebellious nature to attract the attention of refuseniks or Westerners nor the mindless adherence to political diktats which might have attracted state patronage (and later, probably, infamy). He pursued an unspectacular career on four fronts as composer, pianist, organist and teacher. His large output of symphonies, operas and chamber music (in addition to works for his own instruments) remains to be explored but, oddly, he is remembered (if at all) for his Concert Étude for trumpet, which enlivens the sparse concert repertoire of that instrument, and for some unusually skilful and attractive children’s piano pieces.

It seems a bizarre paradox that a fine organist should lavish so much care and imagination on concert transcriptions for the piano. Contrary to Western myth, the church was not totally suppressed under the communist regime but it was, of course, stripped of its hitherto formidable political power. Consequently it lacked the wherewithal, the expertise and possibly the will to maintain its organs in a usable state of repair. It is conceivable that Goedicke turned to the piano in sheer frustration but more likely that these transcriptions were simply a labour of love. His ingenuity and pianistic resourcefulness suggest that he had closely studied the transcriptions of Ferruccio Busoni (the undisputed master in this field), and many of the devices of the Italian genius can be heard in Goedicke’s scores – octave displacements, interlinked thumbs for middle voices, and a general concern to discover truly pianistic equivalents to the organ’s many voices, together with an awareness of church acoustics.

The Prelude and Fugue in G major BWV541 is one of Bach’s most joyous and uplifting creations, and there is something of the same exuberance in Goedicke’s audacious arrangement. His fondness for widespread textures tests the agility of hand and arm almost to the limit at times, but the intrinsically pianistic nature of their deployment ensures that it presents no real impediment to the indomitable energy of the music. The Prelude and Fugue in D minor BWV539 offers something of a novelty – a transcription of a transcription. Bach’s organ fugue is itself an arrangement of the fugue from the solo violin sonata in G minor, following the original argument from bar to bar but amplifying what the solo violin could only hint at. The same could be said of Goedicke’s transcription even if some of his elaborations might have startled the composer. With admirable tact and discretion, he leaves the devotional simplicity of the Prelude almost untouched. The Fugue in C minor BWV575 (a double fugue) is a product of Bach’s Weimar years and takes its theme from Giovanni Legrenzi (1626–1690), a prominent baroque master of the preceding generation but now largely the preserve of early-music specialists. Just as it seems to have come to a full and natural close there follows an improvisatory postlude. Bach’s bare original score suggests to me that this is reflective in character, but to Goedicke it is a dramatic outburst. Such are the endlessly fascinating ambiguities of Bach.

Georgy L’vovich Catoire (1861–1926) developed late as a composer having first graduated in mathematics and worked for some time in his father’s business before devoting his life to music. His most influential teacher was Karl Klindworth, a disciple of Wagner, which set him a little distant from the mainstream Russian tradition. His music is notable for its delicacy and harmonic refinement but, when faced with Bach’s mighty Passacaglia, he too adopts the epic style. In Eugen d’Albert’s better known transcription the music grows from a contained and dignified opening, but Catoire unleashes the mighty roar of the romantic instrument from the start (fortissimo pesante) and he is concerned throughout with the picturesque characterization of each individual variation through changes of texture and register. His determination, at the same time, that not one note of Bach’s should be lost in the process puts merciless demands on the performer.

Dmitri Kabalevsky (1904–1987) has suffered a bad press since his passing, dismissed as a ‘bureaucratic’ composer by critics and vilified by his colleagues for what they regard as his political betrayal of Shostakovich. His transcription of Bach’s lofty Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV538, the so-called ‘Dorian’, would do nothing to enhance his reputation for subtlety or sensitivity. Clearly in thrall to the organ’s mighty couplers and sheer horsepower, he duplicates voices in the four-part fugue to the point where the pianist is struggling with eight. But he had the popular touch (which so endeared him to his political masters) and there is no denying the thrilling power of his climaxes.

Perhaps, in our information-besotted age, we know too much. It is universally accepted that knowledge of itself brings neither wisdom nor understanding. Rules quickly beget formulas – ‘traditions’ likewise – and nothing spells more certain death to a truly living, recreative performance. Artur Schnabel once said: ‘All the information is in the score.’ This, rather than any fearful sense of propriety, was certainly what governed the approach of the composers of these transcriptions. If we too can put aside contentious opinions about style and substance, medium and message, we can enjoy a privileged glimpse not only of the indestructible majesty of J S Bach’s music but equally of the personal responses of these fine musicians who fell under its spell and succumbed to the temptation to express it in their own voice.

Hamish Milne © 2005

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