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.
from notes by Angela Hewitt © 2001
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