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8.110658 - BACH, J.S.: Piano Transcriptions, Vol. 1 (Great Pianists) (1925-1947)

Great Pianists

Bach Piano Transcriptions


What is a transcription? Use a literary analogy and you could call it a translation. You could also call it an arrangement but whatever the name, it amounts to the same thing - an adaptation. Fraught with difficulties though it may be, the practice of adapting a composition from one format to another is far from new Manuscripts from Robertsbridge Abbey, Sussex, England show that motets (short unaccompanied choral compositions) were arranged for organ in the fourteenth century; and Intavolotura, the sixteenth century system of scoring music on two staves rather than having it spread out on separate parts, included Intabulierung which was the transfer of vocal music to the keyboard or lute. Adjustments were necessary because as the composer Sir Hubert Parry once said, "The object of arrangement is to make that which was written in one musical language intelligible in another" and singled out a transcription as "on adaptation more intimately suited to the nature of the new medium, taking greater liberties with the original".


Composers of the baroque era thought nothing of adapting music to suit their purposes and even borrowed from others with impunity. Johann Gottfried Walther (1684 -1748) claimed to have made 78 keyboard arrangements of concertos in the Italian style though only fourteen survive Bach, a distant relative of Walther, arranged sixteen concertos for solo clavier from the compositions of other composers, six of which were by Vivaldi. Fascinated by the work of his southern contemporary, Bach also arranged two more concertos for solo organ and converted the four-violin Concerto in B minor ,Op 3, No 10, into the A minor concerto for four harpsichords and orchestra BWV 1065. But they were not ordinary adaptations. Bach added inner parts, and altered rhythms, keys and melodies. He transformed the originals into compositions of his own.


It did not stop there, of course. Bach borrowed from himself too. The Prelude from the solo violin Partita in E major BWV 1006 (that Rachmaninov sensitively transcribed) was used for the introduction in D major to his Cantata Wir danken dir, Gott BWV 29; thirteen of the fourteen extant keyboard concertos are transcriptions from other instruments; and sections of the Christmas Oratorio are based on secular music written earlier, but skilfully recycled to suit the celebration of a sacred occasion. It was convenient for Bach to transcribe his own music when, as a working musician, he was often under severe pressure.


Why piano transcriptions of Bach? And why were they a nineteenth century phenomenon? First, though, why the piano? Because artistically it largely personified nineteenth century ideals, becoming as David Dubal has described, "a symbol of democracy, self-reliance and personal expression". Beethoven may have set those ideals in motion. He too was a pianist, but he was also iconoclastic, inventive and individual ?a rebel, who triumphed over adversity as well. There was probably no finer exemplar for the Romantic era in music that dawned shortly after his death. The piano triumphed too. Firms like Bosendorfer, Broadwood, Erard, Gaveau, Pleyel and Steinway eventually had models of unprecedented power with the full range of 88 keys. The instrument had come of age and at the right time, in time for one composer to epitomize the Romantic musical hero, and also be considered the greatest pianist of his day - Liszt.


The combination was potent. Liszt was, in his own words. "An artist such as you desire, such as is required nowadays". Visions of independence did not preclude adulation. Combine the two with another factor, a craving for the past, and Bach came to be seen as a genius unappreciated in his day. Romantic musicians adopted him but were not interested in historic performing practices. This was, after all, the age of self-expression. So when Mendelssohn resurrected Bach's St Matthew Passion in 1829, probably starting the Bach revival for the nineteenth century, he presented Bach for that century by changing the orchestration, cutting arias and putting in dynamic and expressive markings that were in keeping with contemporary mores. He also saw fit to add a piano accompaniment to the Chaconne of the D minor Partita for unaccompanied violin. Not to be outdone, Schumann wrote piano parts for all the unaccompanied violin sonatas and partitas, and to the unaccompanied cello suites as well. Czerny included a host of extraneous indications in his 1837 edition of Das Wohltemperierte Klavier, though he sidestepped responsibility somewhat by claiming that they originated from his recollection of Beethoven playing Bach.


The piano had begun to take centre stage. It became fashionable among a growing middle class; and when Liszt pioneered the solo recital in 1839, its position became unassailable Liszt played to the aristocracy but he also played to others. His position became unassailable too. Wilfred Mellers described his impact on Europe as "indeed something for which there is no musical parallel". He could play what he liked. He played Bach unaltered; he also played Bach as transcribed by himself. Some of his compositions, like Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (based on BWV12) are, in the words of Martin Zenck, "new works which by means of their distance from the original works, both fundamentally change Bach's compositions and bring Liszt's compositional status to a qualitatively different level". Within the ethos of his own day, Bach had done something similar when he redesigned Vivaldi to suit himself.


The Romantics simply redesigned Bach to suit themselves. Enhanced Bach was 'in'. What better than the piano, the popular instrument favoured for its highly expressive qualities, for communicating such enhancements to the widest possible audience? The answer Bach via the piano transcription. And the composer who, more than most, took to transcribing Bach for the piano was Ferruccio Busoni (1866 -1924), who had been influenced by Liszt and was seen by many as the finest pianist since Liszt. He was also a scholar who collaborated with Egon Petri (1881 -1962) in annotated editions of all Bach's keyboard works that included transcriptions (together with a rationale for their necessity) of a number of organ preludes, fugues and chorales, two toccatas and the Chaconne from the D minor Partita. In essence, Busoni wanted Bach's works for the concert hall, and transferring organ music to the piano involved restructuring textures to simulate organ sonorities which the iron-clad indestructibility of the music could take - and still remain Bach. Musicians, from Liszt to Rachmaninov, knew this only too well.


Note an interesting point. Every nineteenth century composer mentioned was a composer-pianist, as opposed to pianist-composers who also flourished at this time. Artists such as Friedman, Godowsky, Lhevinne, Rosenthal, Schulz-Evler and Tausig had a narrower creative compass and the music they transcribed was often for the express purpose of demonstrating their transcendental keyboard techniques. Nevertheless, many were also perceptive interpreters - as was Tausig (1841 -1871) whose transcription of Bach's Toccata & Fugue in D minor, is here played by Winifred Christie. She was a British pianist who studied in London with Oscar Beringer (a pupil of Tausig), but lived in the United States for a number of years after she married the composer and inventor Emanuel Mo6r. He designed what became the Bechstein-Moor Duplex-Coupler Grand Piano, a double keyboard instrument that Christie played exclusively after 1926 with music adapted by Moor to exploit its possibilities. It is the only unusual piano in this compilation.


Some pianists of the generation that followed also transcribed music but names like Harriet Cohen and Alexander Kelberine (pupils of Busoni); George Copeland (studied with Debussy); Olga Samaroff (born Lucy Hickenlooper and a famous teacher whose pupils included William Kapell and Rosalyn Tureck) are virtually forgotten today. Still they, and those who are better known, manage remarkably well to capture Romantic flair through a style of playing that is not dated. Bach transcriptions are, however, rarely heard because ours is largely an era of musical sanitisation that rejects what it considers the excesses of a bygone age. Would it be unfair to trace some of the beginnings of today's purist attitudes to another composer-pianist, Artur Schnabel? Although he was a year younger than Petri, Schnabel totally disapproved of recast Bach and cited Busoni's version of the Chaconne as having "a kind of sensuousness, impurity or bombast which seems to be absolutely foreign to Bach's essential qualities". Which brings it all back to Bach. Would he have disapproved? Given his own record, probably not.


Nalen Anthoni


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