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Hyperion Records

CDA67873 - Bach: Piano Transcriptions, Vol. 10 Ė Saint-SaŽns & Philipp
Front illustration by Donya Claire James (b?)
Recording details: November 2010
St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Rachel Smith
Engineered by Ben Connellan
Release date: October 2011
Total duration: 77 minutes 7 seconds


'As soon as Nadejda Vlaeva launches into her first Saint-Saëns Bach transcription, you know you're in for a treat. Sure enough, volume ten of Hyperion's Bach Transcription series provides a parade of joys for pianophiles and Bach junkies alike … a pianofest requiring sumptuous tone, concertante awareness and dazzling octaves. Vlaeva gives it the lot. This young Bulgarian pianist is new to Hyperion; her terrific CD bodes well for the future' (BBC Music Magazine)

'The Ouverture to Cantata, BWV29 is positively stunning under Vlaeva's fingers … in the Andante to Violin Sonata No 2 we are treated to some fine contrapuntal exchanges and subtle melodic revelations to remind us of the mystery and mastery of the great man … all in all, this is a notably spontaneous-sounding recording. Vlaeva pushes all the right buttons and takes this significant Hyperion project a step closer to its apotheosis' (International Record Review)

Piano Transcriptions, Vol. 10 – Saint-Saëns & Philipp
Book I
Allegro maestoso  [4'25]
Adagio  [3'50]
Allegro  [4'43]
Book II
Largo e spiccato  [3'18]

Hyperion’s Bach Transcriptions series shows Bach through the fascinating prism of the Romantic musical mind. This latest volume presents the complete transcriptions by Saint-Saëns, and the programme is interspersed with transcriptions by the elder composer’s friend and disciple, Isidore Philipp. Saint-Saëns was one of the many composers inspired by the continuing publications from the Bach-Gesellschaft, which made many of Bach’s works available in print for the first time, particularly the extraordinary church cantatas. His transcriptions are of particular interest due to his choice of unfamiliar music that was not originally conceived for a keyboard instrument, and the care with which he has made the transcriptions. These are superbly effective piano realizations achieved with the minimum of intervention.

Hyperion is thrilled to present the young Bulgarian pianist Nadejda Vlaeva in her label debut. She performs with a palpable energy and impressive technical assurance.

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Introduction  EnglishFranÁaisDeutsch
‘An Astounding Revelation’: Saint-Saëns’s reaction to Bach’s Cantatas
On 6 May 1846 Camille Saint-Saëns, billed as ‘aged ten and a half’, gave a concert at the Salle Pleyel in Paris. The prodigious boy, who had only been learning the piano for three years, performed two concertos—by Mozart (in B flat, K450) and Beethoven (No 3)—and he also included two baroque keyboard works: Handel’s ‘Harmonious Blacksmith’ Variations, and an unspecified ‘Prélude et fugue de J. S. Bach’. Saint-Saëns had been introduced to Bach by his first piano teacher, Camille-Marie Stamaty (1811–1870), and his interest was further nurtured by the organist Alexandre Pierre François Boëly (1785–1858), one of the most enthusiastic advocates of Bach’s music in France in the first half of the nineteenth century. Boëly’s devotion to Bach did him little good professionally—in 1851 he was dismissed from his post as organist at Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois for the undue ‘austerity’ of his repertoire—but Saint-Saëns and César Franck both considered Boëly to have played an important role in bringing Bach’s organ music into the French repertoire.

In 1850, the Bach-Gesellschaft was established in Leipzig to mark the centenary of the composer’s death, with the aim of publishing his complete works—putting into practice a proposal first made by Mendelssohn in the 1830s. Its original committee was led by Moritz Hauptmann (Bach’s successor as Cantor of St Thomas’s in Leipzig), Otto Jahn (Mozart’s biographer), Carl Ferdinand Becker (professor of organ at the Leipzig Conservatoire), Robert Schumann (who had done so much to encourage a comprehensive Bach edition in the first place) and the publisher Breitkopf & Härtel, with the enthusiastic support of Liszt, Moscheles and Spohr, among others. Brahms, Bruch, Gade, Joachim and Reinecke were among the musical luminaries who became involved later in the edition’s history. This was an ambitious project that would ultimately take half a century to complete: not only was Bach’s output very large, but, unlike the composers enshrined in the great collected editions that soon followed (Handel, Mozart, Beethoven and so on), only a relatively small proportion of his music had hitherto been published at all. This was especially the case with the church cantatas (barely half a dozen of them had been issued in any form by 1850). When the inaugural volume appeared in 1851, it included ten of the cantatas (BWV1–BWV10) and by 1875, the first hundred had appeared in print, almost all for the first time. The Bach-Gesellschaft invited musicians all over the world to subscribe to the edition, and the original list of subscribers included one notable Paris composer, Charles-Valentin Alkan (who gave performances for friends of Bach’s organ works on a piano with pedals built for him by Erard). Another early Parisian subscriber was Pauline Viardot (née García), who had explored Bach’s keyboard works with Chopin, no less. She regularly arranged performances of some of the newly published cantatas in her salon, often asking Saint-Saëns to play the organ. (Viardot also owned the autograph manuscript of of the cantata Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele, a Christmas present in 1858 from Julius Rietz, who had played in Mendelssohn’s 1829 performance of the St Matthew Passion and whose edition of the same work was published by the Bach-Gesellschaft in 1854.) Saint-Saëns himself soon subscribed to the Bach-Gesellschaft, and as the edition neared completion, more French Bach enthusiasts appeared in lists of subscribers, including Dukas, Gide and Guilmant. Saint-Saëns was deeply affected by his discovery of the cantatas at Viardot’s salon and he later recalled her enthusiasm for them in his Musical Memories (1913):

Madame Viardot was as learned a musician as any one could be and she was among the first subscribers to the complete edition of Sebastian Bach’s works. We know what an astounding revelation that work was. Each year brought ten religious cantatas, and each year brought us new surprises in the unexpected variety and impressiveness of the work. We thought we had known Sebastian Bach, but now we learned how really to know him. We found him a writer of unusual versatility and a great poet. His Well-Tempered Clavier had given us only a hint of all this. The beauties of this famous work needed exposition for, in the absence of definite instructions, opinions differed. In the cantatas the meaning of the words serves as an indication and through the analogy between the forms of expression, it is easy to see pretty clearly what the author intended in his clavier pieces.
One fine day the annual volume was found to contain a cantata in several parts written for a contralto solo accompanied by stringed instruments, oboes and an organ obbligato. The organ was there and the organist as well. So we assembled the instruments, Stockhausen, the baritone, was made the leader of the little orchestra, and Madame Viardot sang the cantata. I suspect that the author had never heard his work sung in any such manner. I cherish the memory of that day as one of the most precious in my musical career. My mother and Monsieur Viardot were the only listeners to this exceptional exhibition. We did not dare to repeat it before hearers who were not ready for it. What would now be a great success would have fallen flat at that time. And nothing is more irritating than to see an audience cold before a beautiful work. It is far better to keep to one’s self treasures which will be unappreciated.

Saint-Saëns doesn’t specify which cantata Viardot performed on this occasion, but the likeliest candidate is Geist und Seele wird verwirret, BWV35, first published in 1857 as part of volume 7 (cantatas 31–40), and scored for alto solo, strings, two oboes and continuo. Further supporting evidence comes in Saint-Saëns’s own arrangement of a movement from it—the Sinfonia that opens the second part of the work—as the Presto in the first set of his Bach transcriptions.

Saint-Saëns’s earliest Bach arrangement had not been for solo piano, but for violin and piano. This, too, was only possible thanks to the recent Bach-Gesellschaft publications: he devised an additional piano accompaniment for the Prelude of the E major Partita (No 3) for solo violin that was derived from Bach’s own orchestral version as the opening Sinfonia for the Cantata No 29. This Sinfonia was itself one of the movements to which Saint-Saëns turned for his piano transcriptions, calling it ‘Ouverture’ and presenting it in its D major cantata version as the opening piece in the set. Two more cantata movements are included in this first group: the opening chorus of Cantata No 3 (Adagio), and the opening chorus of Cantata No 8 (Andantino). Each is given in its original key, and Saint-Saëns keeps editorial interference to a minimum—his intention seems to have been to share his ‘astonishing revelation’ of the cantatas by making idiomatic piano versions of Bach’s originals rather than by producing freer concert paraphrases. In the case of the Sonatas and Partitas for violin, the challenge was rather different. What Saint-Saëns does here echoes Bach’s own practice, as reported by his pupil Johann Friedrich Agricola in 1774: ‘The composer himself often played them on the clavichord, adding as much in the nature of harmony as he found necessary.’ In its original form, this music was more admired than played, and to encourage performances, Mendelssohn composed a piano accompaniment for the Chaconne, and Schumann produced accompaniments for all six Sonatas and Partitas.

One clue to why Saint-Saëns wrote these transcriptions in the first place is provided by their dedications: each is dedicated to one of Saint-Saëns’s students at the École Niedermeyer. According to Sabina Teller Ratner’s invaluable thematic catalogue of Saint-Saëns’s works (Vol. 1, 2002, p.434), they were the prizewinners in the advanced piano class in July 1861. No 1, the ‘Ouverture’ from Cantata No 29, is dedicated to Saint-Saëns’s star pupil and his lifelong friend, Gabriel Fauré (who later made an edition of Bach’s organ works for Durand); No 2, the Adagio from Cantata No 3, is dedicated to the organist and composer Eugène Gigout; No 3, the Andantino from Cantata No 8, to Adolphe Dietrich (who later taught at the Dijon Conservatoire, becoming its director); No 4, the Bourrée from the Partita No 1 for solo violin, to Adam Laussel (whose music Saint-Saëns played during a concert he gave with Anton Rubinstein); No 5, the Andante from the Sonata No 2 for solo violin, to Emile Lehman (or Lehmann); and No 6, the Presto from Cantata No 35, to Albert Périlhou, who had a career as a pianist and organist in Saint-Étienne and Lyon before returning to Paris as an advisor to the Erard piano firm, and a brief stint as organist of Saint-Eustache, before becoming the director of the École Niedermeyer half a century after graduating from it. It is clear that Saint-Saëns, whose piano class included mandatory study of Bach’s works, wanted his students to cherish this music. Whether he wrote these pieces solely as graduation presents for them is unclear; he certainly used the transcriptions to enrich his own concert repertoire. He first played Nos 2 and 4 in the Salle Pleyel on 17 January 1862; Nos 1 and 2 he gave in Bach’s own city of Leipzig on 26 October 1865; and he included No 4 as an encore there on 15 October 1868.

These six pieces were published in 1862 by the firm of Flaxland and they are thus among the earliest Bach piano transcriptions—predated by arrangements of organ works by Liszt (another Bach devotee), whose piano version of six preludes and fugues was published by Peters and announced in the Hofmeister Monatsbericht in June 1852. Perhaps the most famous Bach arrangement by a French composer is Gounod’s Méditation sur le 1er Prélude de Piano de S. Bach. This first appeared in a version for piano, violin and organ in April 1853—swiftly followed by a solo piano version in June 1853. The edition with the words of the Ave Maria dates from 1859, when it appeared as a song for voice and piano. This is still perhaps the most celebrated Bach paraphrase of all—like his friend Saint-Saëns, Gounod was a passionate admirer of Bach’s music (and, incidentally, he had an extremely turbulent romantic entanglement with Pauline Viardot, whose salon was the most Bach-friendly in Paris). In terms of French Bach arrangements, another that deserves a passing mention is the Parisian virtuoso Henri Bertini’s arrangement for piano four-hands of the complete Well-Tempered Clavier that appeared in the early 1840s. But in these cases the music was readily available in its original form, and was quite well known. Saint-Saëns’s transcriptions are of interest on at least two counts: his choice of unfamiliar music that was not originally conceived for a keyboard instrument; and the care with which he has made the transcriptions. These are superbly effective piano realizations achieved with the minimum of intervention: Saint-Saëns has added some octave doublings, and markings for dynamics and expression, but otherwise he has remained quite faithful to the source.

In 1873, eleven years after publishing the first set, Durand Schoenewerk (Flaxland’s successor) issued a second group of Saint-Saëns’s Bach transcriptions. Once again, Saint-Saëns chose from the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin and the cantatas. The source for No 7, ‘Introduction et air de la 15e Cantate d’église’, is now believed to be by Johann Ludwig Bach (1677–1731), though it was probably performed by Johann Sebastian (his second cousin) in 1726. Among the violin works, it is oddly appropriate that Saint-Saëns chose the great C major fugue from BWV1005. This was the first movement from any of the Sonatas and Partitas to appear in print, and it was published in Paris: Jean-Baptiste Cartier included it in his L’Art du violon of 1798, four year before Simrock published the complete set of Sonatas and Partitas.

This time, the whole set was dedicated to one remarkable pianist. Wilhelmine Clauss-Szarvady (1834–1907) was born in Prague but settled in Paris. In 1851, at one of her first Parisian concerts, she had played Beethoven’s C major Concerto conducted by Berlioz (who described her as ‘the first among female pianists’). The following year, still in her teens, she gave her London debut at the Musical Union, including a Prelude and Fugue in C sharp major by Bach (presumably either BWV848 or BWV872 from the ‘48’) on the same programme as Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’ Sonata, Mendelssohn’s Fantasy Op 28 and Liszt’s Réminiscences de Don Juan. Clauss-Szarvady’s playing on this occasion led The Times to describe her as ‘a phenomenon … her talent is of that high order which only genius can attain’. She made a speciality of playing Bach and caused a stir in 1858 with a performance of the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue (BWV903), a work hitherto virtually unknown to French concert audiences. In 1863–4 Clauss-Szarvady published a selection of the baroque works that were in her repertoire, including Scarlatti, Pergolesi, Rameau, Chambonnières, Couperin, Marcello and Balbastre, but nothing by J S Bach. Clauss-Szarvady and Saint-Saëns certainly shared a passion for the composer, and perhaps Saint-Saëns was also hoping to have some of his new transcriptions included in her concerts. Though she doesn’t seem to have given any of the first performances, she did appear with Saint-Saëns on at least one occasion: in April 1877 she played the composer’s own two-piano version of Danse macabre with him at a concert in the Salle Pleyel.

Isidore Philipp (1863–1958) was born in Budapest but he was taken to Paris as a child. His principal teacher was Georges Mathias (a pupil of both Chopin and Kalkbrenner), and he also took some lessons with Saint-Saëns. The two became friends, and Philipp performed many of Saint-Saëns’s works. Philipp shared Saint-Saëns’s love of Bach, and in 1920 Saint-Saëns dedicated one of his most explicitly Bachian works to Philipp: the Six Fugues Op 161. He wrote to the pianist from Algiers that ‘you will find in them a distant reflection of the Well-Tempered Clavier, despite my efforts to get away from that idea’. Philipp’s enthusiasm for Bach is demonstrated by a large number of published transcriptions, including a dazzling set of fifteen Études en octaves d’après J. S. Bach published in 1912, and a number of two-piano transcriptions of organ works, as well as solo transcriptions. In the two concertos after Vivaldi recorded here Philipp’s piano writing is more thickly scored than is usual in Saint-Saëns’s arrangements. In the transcription of the A minor Concerto from 1923, for example, Philipp uses unusually full chords, octave doublings and tremolando bass underpinnings to yield sonorities that are richer than those found in Feinberg’s arrangement of the same piece (see Hyperion CDA67468). The redoubtable Philipp gave a series of farewell recitals in his early nineties, and was still active at ninety-five: his death was the result of a fall on the Paris Métro.

Nigel Simeone © 2011

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