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Prelude in B minor, BWV855a
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.

from notes by Hamish Milne © 2005

Track-specific metadata
Details for CDA67506 track 3
Recording date
3 October 2004
Recording venue
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Jeremy Hayes
Recording engineer
Tony Faulkner
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