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ClassicsOnline Home » BACH, J.S.: Piano Transcriptions, Vol. 2 (Great Pianists) (1925-1950)
By David Denton
Rarely do you find a heading longer than the review. Even that
has been reduced to a bare minimum, each work including in brackets the arranger
and artist(s) that I hope is self-explanatory. The disc is one for the curious
who seeks to move away from the real Bach to a new version devised by pianists
for their pleasure. Certainly if you sample any of the first three tracks you
will be hooked, the two piano arrangement by Victor Babin of the Organ Sonata
so successful you could well imagine it to be an original score. It receives
a sprightly and joyous performance, which is not always the case as we progress
through the disc, Edwin Fischer's 'St. Anne' Prelude and Fugue so dour as to
become boring. The transcriptions cover the literal to the extremes of Percy
Grainger's loving "ramble" through Sheep May Safely Graze.
But it is tack 14 - the Prelude in G minor - which will really make you sit
up and take notice. It comes from the Canadian pianist, Ellen Ballon, who gives
a warts and all performance that sizzles with vitality. It only makes Wilhelm
Kempff a couple of tracks later sound so old and stodgy. The recordings stretch
from 1930 to 1950 and have been so beautifully restored that the feeling of
a time gap is largely diminished, while the volume levels have been set so that
you can pass from one track to the next without leaping for the volume control.
Bach Piano Transcriptions, Vol. 2
The Russian-American violinist and composer Arcady Dubensky (1890-1966) was passionate when it came to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Dubensky considered Bach the greatest of modernists, in his daring modulations, harmonies, and in the complexity of his ideas. Albert Schweitzer seemed to agree, when he wrote: "Bach's music seems to us modern in so far as it makes a strong effort to get beyond the natural indefiniteness of musical sound." Schweitzer continued, "The unique thing in Bach is the clearness and completeness of his musical language." This is perhaps the reason why Bach's compositions remain the most performed, the most recorded, the most studied, and the most transcribed.
In this second volume in the continuing Naxos series devoted to historic recordings of piano transcriptions of Bach's music, fifteen works are expertly transformed for the modern piano. Opening the disc is Bach's Sonata No. 5 in C major, BWV 529, in a transcription for two pianos, four hands by Victor Babin (1908-1972). Babin transcribed all six of Bach's sonatas for two manuals and obbligato pedal. According to the German music historian Johann Nikolaus Forkel, Bach intended these sonatas to serve as exercises for his oldest son Wilhelm Friedemann, "who, by practising them had to prepare himself to become the great performer on the organ that he afterward was." Babin's transcription takes full advantage of both pianos to emulate the writing for the organ. Vitya Vronsky (1909-1992) and Victor Babin in their 1940 recording of this work provide a joyous and enchanting beginning to this historic recital.
British pianist Harriet Cohen (1895-1967) was one of Tobias Matthay's most brilliant students. She was admired as a Bach interpreter, presenting in 1925 the very first all-Bach programme to be performed in Queen's Hall, London. In 1931 she was invited by the Bach Gesellschaft to perform at Bach's birthplace in Eisenach. Her recording of the Fantasia No. 4 in C minor, BWV 906, is her contemporary tribute to fellow pianist and transcriber Egon Petri (1881-1962). Petri follows her with his own 1935 recording of his transcription of a Bach Menuet, which is in reality an interplay of the three Menuets, BWV 841-843, from the Wilhelm Friedemann Bach Notebook.
One of the great interpreters of Bach's music is without doubt Edwin Fischer (1886-1960). His extraordinary performance of all of Bach's 48 preludes and fugues of the "Well-Tempered Clavier" stands as one of the great recordings of all time [Naxos Historical 8.110651-52 (Book I) and 8.110653-54 (Book II)]. A master of shading and expression, Fischer's 1933 performance of Ferruccio Busoni's transcription of Bach's Prelude and Fugue in E flat major ("St Anne"), BWV 552, is marked by a wonderful blend of power and delicacy of feeling.
Berlin-born Walter Rummel (1887-1953) began his studies with his father. In 1901 his family moved to Washington, D.C., where he continued his studies with Samuel Monroe Fabian. By 1904 Rummel had returned to Berlin to study with Leopold Godowsky. He became an American citizen in 1908, and a year later moved to Paris where he became friends with Ezra Pound and Claude Debussy. During the 1920s Rummel performed in all the major capitals of Europe, specialising in single-composer programmes. Two years later he began publishing his series of 25 transcriptions of Bach's organ works and cantata extracts. One of these, Vom Himmel hoch da komm' ich her, BWV 248, he recorded in Berlin in 1930.
The Italian composer, cellist and pianist, Luigi Perrachio (1883-1966) is not well known today, yet he was an influential teacher of piano and composition at the Turin Conservatory (1925-1955), and left a remarkable and interesting catalogue of original works. In 1931 he published a set of six piano transcriptions of Bach's organ chorale preludes. The French pianist Emma Boynet (1891-1974) (an Isidor Philipp student at the Paris Conservatoire) is heard in Perrachio's transcription of Allein Gott in der Höh' sei Ehr', BWV 711, in a rare recording made in New York in 1934.
The Australian Percy Aldridge Grainger (1882-1961) saw himself as an innovator. Writing about what he called "Free music", he said: "It is my only important contribution to music". Only in the last decade has there been a comprehensive assessment of Grainger's pianistic and compositional art, with numerous recordings of his works and reissues of some of his most important historic recordings. Grainger arranged and transcribed many of the works of J.S. Bach. Among the most extraordinary of these is his Blithe Bells, which he subtitled, "Ramble on Bach's Aria 'Sheep May Safely Graze'". "The ramble," wrote Grainger, "is coloured by the thought that Bach, in writing the melody in thirds that open and close the number, may have aimed at giving a hint of the sound of sheep bells". The delicious jazzy moment at the end of the piece is pure gold. He recorded the "ramble" in 1931 in New York on his favoured piano of the time, the Mason & Hamlin.
Nicolai Mednikoff (1890-1942) was a student at the Petrograd Conservatory. At fourteen he made his Berlin recital début. He came to the United States in 1914. He concertised and recorded with Pablo Casals, and in 1929 established the Westchester Conservatory. He died in White Plains, New York on 19 April, 1942, as the result of suicide by shooting himself through the heart in his Conservatory office. His transcription of Bach's "Little" Fugue in G minor, BWV 578, is beautifully executed by the British-American duo team of Ethel Bartlett (1896-1978) and Rae Robertson (1893-1956).
Two other duo piano teams follow. Theodore Saidenberg (1908-1986) and Edward Rebner (1910-1993) who teamed up on radio, perform in 1946 a two-piano version of "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring", BWV 147, a work that is best known in Myra Hess's extraordinary two-hand transcription. Wolfgang Edward Rebner was the son of the violinist Adolph Rebner, teacher of the composer Paul Hindemith. When Rebner left Germany in 1939 he pursued a career in Hollywood as a pianist. He often performed in Los Angeles for Peter Yates's Evenings on the Roof which evolved into the famous Monday Evening Concerts. After World War II he became more involved with the music of his homeland, finally returning to Germany permanently to teach at the Richard Strauss Conservatory in Munich. It was in Hollywood that he met the pianist Theodore Saidenberg, a much sought-after accompanist and partner in chamber music. He appeared in concert with Louis Kaufman, Erica Morini, Jascha Heifetz, Rose Bampton, Emmanuel Feuermann, Mischa Mischakoff, Raya Garbousova, Helen Jepson, Lily Pons, Richard Tucker and Isaac Stern. A native of Baltimore, Maryland and a graduate of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, Saidenberg had also a successful career in radio, motion picture recording and on the concert stage.
Pierre Luboschutz (1891-1971) and Genia Nemenoff (1905-1989) offer a sensuous and sensitive performance of Guy Maier's transcription of the flute Siciliano, BWV 1031. Guy Maier (1892-1956) together with the pianist Lee Pattison (1890-1966) were among the early twentieth-century duo-piano teams and pioneers in the recording studio. Pierre Luboschutz was a student of Felix Blumenfeld and Edouard Risler. His sister, Lea Luboschutz, was an accomplished violinist. Genia Nemenoff studied at the Paris Conservatoire with Isidor Philipp. The two pianists met in 1929 and married in 1931. After their first and very successful American tour in 1937, they decided to establish themselves as a permanent two-piano team. Considered among the greatest duo-piano teams of all time, their playing was marked by beautiful coordination, buoyancy, and musical grace.
Alexander Siloti (1863-1945) was a student of Nikolay Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky and Franz Liszt. Sergey Rachmaninov was his first cousin and also his student. As a pianist, Siloti was a colourist with extraordinary technique and virtuosity. One critic remarked that Siloti had "brains as well as fingers and wrists, and subtle but indesputable temperament as well as brains". Siloti published many Bach transcriptions and the Organ Prelude in G minor, BWV 535, is among his finest creations. The Siloti transcription is performed by the Canadian pianist Ellen Ballon (1898-1969), a student of Josef Hofmann, Wilhelm Backhaus, Rafael Joseffy, and Alberto Jonas.
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) was a master craftsman who had an unerring musical sense and an astonishing ability to produce masterpiece after masterpiece. He left a substantial volume of work including thirteen operas (of which Samson et Dalila is considered one of the greatest works of the French lyric stage), ten concertos (including the delightful Carnival of the Animals for two pianos and orchestra), seven symphonies, numerous choral works, over a hundred songs, symphonic poems, piano compositions and chamber sonatas for violin, cello, clarinet, oboe and bassoon. He also wrote works for military band, cadenzas to piano concertos of Mozart and Beethoven, and transcribed and arranged numerous works by Bach, Gluck, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Mozart and others. For some reason Bach's Bourrée, from Partita No.1 in B minor for Solo Violin, BWV 1002, in the Saint-Saëns piano transcription has always been a favourite work of Russian piano teachers and Russian pianists. Ossip Gabrilowitsch (1878-1936), was an extraordinary pianist and composer. He studied piano with Anton Rubinstein and Theodore Leschetizky, and composition with Lyadov and Glazunov. Gabrilowitsch recorded the Bourrée, among his favourite encore pieces, in New York in 1925 but the recording was never commercially released during his lifetime. Played with verve and joy, the Bourrée comes alive in Gabrilowitsch's performance.
Wilhelm Kempff (1895-1991) came from a family of organists. At the Berlin Hochschule für Musik he studied with Heinrich Barth and Robert Kahn. He made his début in 1907 and continued performing until 1981. He recorded the complete Beethoven sonatas three times in his long career. As a Bach player he was highly regarded. His intimate knowledge of the organ (he continued to play the organ even after choosing a pianistic career) contributed to his sensitivity and authority when playing Bach on the piano. His piano transcriptions of Bach's music are among the finest for the instrument. We hear Kempff perform his own transcription of Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Sleepers, Wake!), BWV 645, which he recorded in Berlin in 1936.
Russian-born Alexander Kelberine (1903-1940) studied with Busoni, Leo Sirota and Alexander Siloti. Kelberine was married to Jeanne Behrend (1911-1988) who was a student of Josef Hofmann, Rosario Scalero and Abram Chasins. They formed a duo-piano team and recorded together on the Victor label. Their 1936 set of Bach transcriptions (all by Kelberine) for solo and duo performance is a collector's item today. According to Nicolas Slonimsky, "Kelberine was a victim of acute depression… He programmed his last recital for pieces in minor keys and of funeral connotations, concluding with Liszt's Todtentanz, after which he went home and took an overdose of sleeping pills." In Vol. 1 [Naxos Historical 8.110658] we presented Kelberine playing solo. In this volume he is heard in a two-piano, four-hands (with Jeanne Behrend) transcription from the 1936 session in New York, of Nun kommt, der Heiden Heiland (Now comes the gentiles' Saviour), BWV 659a.
The Russian-born pianist Ray Lev (1912-1968) moved to the United States in 1913. Her father was a synagogue cantor, and her mother a concert singer. After studies in New Haven and New York, she was awarded the Matthay Prize in London, then studying with Tobias Matthay from 1930 to 1933. After World War II she was signed by the Concert Hall Society record company, for which she recorded many significant firsts. Among these was her own transciption of Bach's Concerto No. 5 in D minor after Vivaldi's Opus 3, No. 11, BWV 596. In this recording made in New York in 1946, Lev elicits from the piano an amazing dynamic range, from loud to whisper soft.
Marina A. Ledin and Victor Ledin
Continuing our survey of Bach transcriptions from the rich 78rpm era, we have attempted to assemble a historically interesting and musically rewarding listening experience. Although the paramount goals were to find brilliant performances of historic interest, we also always strove to find the best sounding recordings from the first half of the twentieth century. In anthologies such as this the sound becomes more problematic, since no two performers are the same, no two recording venues are the same, no two pianists are the same (nor are the pianos the same). Some recordings with quiet surfaces had odd acoustics, while the presence of low-level rumble and variable quantity of surface noise made the process of production even more challenging. In all cases we gathered numerous copies of each of the selected performances in order to present the best possible musical results. Keeping in mind that the newest recording assembled here is 57 years old, and the oldest is 82, we hope that the blemishes of time do not detract from the enjoyment and experience of the music. Since many of these recordings are scare and even rare in good condition, we have relied on musical colleagues and collectors who provided advice and their discerning ears, their rare collections and willingness to help in order to preserve and share recordings not commonly available today. Many thanks to engineer and collector Richard Wahlberg, historian and collector Lance Bowling, pianist William Corbett-Jones, and to archivist and discographer Michael Gray for making sure that the historical data was accurate. Additional thanks go to Michael Gartz and Peter Ford for their advice, and for searching and locating extra copies of some of the recordings.
Marina A. Ledin, Victor Ledin and Anthony Casuccio.
BACH: Piano Transcriptions • Volume 2
Sonata No. 5 in C major for Organ (2 Claviers and Pedal), BWV 529 (Transcribed by Victor Babin)
Vitya Vronsky and Victor Babin, duo-pianists
Recorded in New York, 29 November 1940
Victor 13634-B (13627-B, 057687) 13633-B (13628-A, 057688), and 13632-B (13628-B 057689) in Set DM-778
Fantasia No. 4 in C minor, BWV 906 (Transcribed by Egon Petri)
Harriet Cohen, pianist
Recorded in London, 22 March 1935
Columbia 68388-D (and LX400) (CAX-7498)
3 Menuets (Menuet in G major, BWV 841; Menuet in G minor, BWV 842; Menuet in G major, BWV 843, from the Wilhelm Friedemann Bach Notebook)
Transcribed and played by Egon Petri, pianist
Recorded in London, 12 December 1935
Columbia LX508 (CAX-7700-1)
Prelude and Fugue in E flat major ("St. Anne"), BWV 552 (Transcribed by Ferruccio Busoni)
Edwin Fisher, pianist
Recorded in London, 25 April 1933
Victrola 7960 A & B and 7961 A & B (2B-6647 (III), 2B-6648 (II), 2B-6649 (II), 2B-6650 (I)
Vom Himmel hoch da komm' ich her, BWV 248
Transcribed and played by Walter Rummel, pianist
Recorded in Berlin, 12 November 1930
Disque "Gramophone" P-858 (BG-1136-1 (50-1090-G)
Allein Gott in der Höh' sei Herr, BWV 711 (Transcribed by Luigi Perrachio)
Emma Boynet, pianist
Recorded in New York, 26 October 1934
Percy Grainger: "Blithe Bells" (Ramble on Bach's Aria "Sheep May Safely Graze"; "Schafe können sicher weiden" from Cantata BWV 208)
Transcribed and played by Percy Grainger, pianist
Recorded in New York, October 1931
Columbia 68006-D (98759) from Set 166
"Little" Fugue in G minor, BWV 578 (Transcribed by Nicolai Mednikoff)
Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson, duo-pianists
Recorded in London, 12 May 1947
Columbia DB2371 (CA20387-1)
"Jesu bleibet meine Freude" ("Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring"), from Cantata No.147 "Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben", BWV 147 (Transcribed by Edward Rebner)
Theodore Saidenberg and Edward Rebner, duo-pianists
Recorded in Los Angeles, in 1946
Standard Program Library T-295 (SRR-2544-3)
Siciliano (from Sonata No. 2 in E flat major for Flute and Clavier Obbligato, BWV 1031, Transcribed by Guy Maier)
Pierre Luboschutz and Genia Nemenoff, duo-pianists
Recorded in New York, 12 September 1939
Victor 17552-B (17548-B, DO42671-I) from Set DM-724
Organ Prelude in G minor, BWV 535 (Transcribed by Alexander Siloti)
Ellen Ballon, pianist
Recorded in London, 25 July 1950
London LPS306 (DRL 571-1B)
Bourrée (from Partita No. 1 in B minor for Solo Violin, BWV 1002) (Transcribed by Camille Saint-Saëns)
Ossip Gabrilowitsch, pianist
Recorded in New York, 13 May 1925
Victor BVE-32701-2 (Unissued)
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme ("Sleepers, Wake!"), BWV 645
Transcribed and played by Wilhelm Kempff, pianist
Recorded in Berlin, January 1936
Polydor 67086B (589 3/4 GS (67392B)
Nun kommt, der Heiden Heiland ("Now comes the gentiles' Saviour"), BWV 659a (Transcribed by Alexander Kelberine)
Jeanne Behrend and Alexander Kelberine, Duo-pianists
Recorded in New York, 27 August 1936
Victor 14208-B (2), from Set M330, Side 12
Concerto No. 5 in D minor after Vivaldi's Opus 3, No. 11, BWV 596
Transcribed and played by Ray Lev, pianist
Recorded in New York, 1946
Concert Hall Society Release AH (1052-2; 1053-3; 1054-1)
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