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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Transcriptions for Piano by Saint-Saëns • Siloti • Reger • d'Albert • Kabalevsky

Piano transcriptions at one time had a place of the greatest importance in the dissemination of music, before the days of recordings and the growth of interest in period instruments and fidelity to the original composer's supposed intentions. Until relatively recently arrangements of orchestral music for piano duet or two pianos, or even for three players, was commonplace, particularly in an age when every household had its piano. Transcription, of course, predates the nineteenth-century popularity of the piano and Bach himself wrote keyboard transcriptions of a series of concertos by contemporary composers such as Vivaldi, Alessandro Marcello, Telemann and even the talented young Prince Johann Ernst of Saxe-Weimar. Arrangements of this kind offer a further insight into the works on which they are based.

If Johann Sebastian Bach was both a master of the keyboard, the harpsichord, the clavichord and the organ, and of transcription, then his own music has proved an interesting field for exploration by later arrangers and transcribers, writing, in particular, for the piano in a way that can reflect the grandeur of the organ in pianistic terms, fill out the implied harmonies of works for unaccompanied violin or cello and expand the range of the relatively limited clavichord and harpsichord.

Bach won early distinction as an organist and was employed in this capacity at Weimar until 1717, when he became Court Kapellmeister to the young Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, an enthusiastic amateur. In 1723, after the Prince's marriage to a woman that Bach described as amusica, he moved to a position of less social significance as Cantor at the Choir School of St Thomas in Leipzig, where, for the rest of his life, he remained responsible for music in the principal city churches, employed by the town council.

The first transcription included is of the opening Sinfonia to the cantata 'Wir danken dir Gott' (We thank thee, God), BWV 29, written for performance on 27 August 1731 for the inauguration of the Leipzig town council. The movement has its origin in the Preludio to the E major Partita for Solo Violin and was used again by Bach in a wedding cantata of 1729 and in the cantata from which Saint-Saëns made the transcription here included. Camille Saint-Saëns himself, born in Paris in 1835, was a musician of the greatest versatility, much respected in his time, although by the time of his death in 1921 musical fashions had changed. His own musical taste had brought a keen interest in the music of Bach and he was instrumental in the revival of the latter's works that was taking place. Even as a child he had made a strong impression as a pianist and for many years he served as organist at the Madeleine. Among his transcriptions are arrangements of movements from Bach's cantatas, dedicated to some of his pupils at the Ecole Niedermeyer, where he taught briefly in the 1860s.

Bach's six Sonatas for Violin and Cembalo were written during his time at Cöthen. The texture of these works is that of the trio sonatas, with three interwoven melodic lines. The Adagio from the Sonata in F minor allows the violin a generally chordal part, while the keyboard provides a moving element below. This is reflected in the transcription by Alexander Siloti. The latter was born in 1863 in the Ukrainian city of Kharkov. He was a pupil of Nikolay Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky at the Moscow Conservatory and in 1883 became a pupil of Liszt in Weimar, until the latter's death in 1886. He returned to Moscow in 1887 to join the teaching staff of the Conservatory, where his pupils included his cousin Sergei Rachmaninov. He later turned his attention also to conducting and after 1917 left Russia, finally settling in America, where he died in 1945 after teaching for some twenty years at the Juilliard School in New York. He left a number of transcriptions.

The famous and challenging Chaconne from the Partita in D minor for Solo Violin has attracted a variety of arrangements, including a well known version for the piano by Ferruccio Busoni and a piano transcription by Brahms for the left hand. The Baroque dance-variation form of the Chaconne is based on a repeated pattern of chords, heard at the outset. The piano version by Siloti gives great clarity to the melodic line, wbich is not always at the top, and is able to give fuller form to the chordal structure, while avoiding the occasional extravagance of Busoni's version.

Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565, is generally dated to the period before the composer's employment in Weimar, while he was serving as organist in Mühlhausen or Arnstadt, although some have questioned its attribution. Max Reger was born in the Bavarian town of Brand in 1873 and by the time of his death in 1916 had achieved a reputation as a composer, organist, pianist and conductor, in the last capacity notably as director of the Meiningen Court Orchestra. His varied compositions include a quantity of organ music, an important part of current repertoire for the instrument. At the same time he made a number of transcriptions of organ music by Bach, some for solo piano and some for piano duet. In the imposing introductory Toccata and the Fugue that follows, something of the sonority of the organ is reflected in the discreet octave doublings of writing, which, in its original form, has extended sections for the manuals alone.

The great Passacaglia in C minor is again thought to belong to the period Bach spent at Mühlhausen or Arnstadt, before his appointment to the court at Weimar. The Baroque variation form of the Passacaglia involves the treatment of a repeated melodic formula, which may serve as a bass or appear, from time to time, in upper parts. It has been suggested that Bach intended the present work for the harpsichord. The first statement of the theme, originally on the pedals of the organ, is followed by twenty variations and a fugue. The German composer and pianist Eugen d'Albert, of remoter Italian ancestry, was born in 1864 in Glasgow, the son of a pupil of the virtuoso pianist Kalkbrenner, who worked in Scotland and England as a ballet-master. D'Albert owed much to the encouragement of Liszt and he won a contemporary reputation both as a composer and for his performances of music by Bach, as well as his interpretations of the music of Beethoven, Brahms and Liszt. His transcriptions of Bach are always of interest, if occasionally straying from the original, as he did, it seems, in his performances.

Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, known as 'The Dorian' from the mode in which it is written, was composed during the composer's time at Weimar. It is a work on an imposing scale. The Russian composer Dmitry Kabalevsky was born in St Petersburg in 1904 and embarked on an early career as a pianist, while developing his powers as a composer and treading a delicate and generally successful line in Soviet musical politics until his death in 1987. His transcription of the Dorian Toccata and Fugue makes full use of the dynamic possibilities of the piano in its reproduction of organ sonorities.

Keith Anderson

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