Bach in Transcriptions — Jean Alexis Smith, Piano — MSR Classics

by | Jun 19, 2020 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

 J.S. BACH: Transcriptions = Toccata in C Major, BWV 564 (arr. Busoni); My Heart Ever Faithful, BWV 68 (arr. Friedman); The Soul Rests in Jesus’ Hands, BWVV 127 (arr. Bauer); Adagio in A Minor, BWV 564 (arr. Busoni); Prelude in A Minor, BWV 543 (arr. Liszt); Fugue in A Minor, BWV 543 (arr. Liszt); Prelude in B Minor, BWV 855a (arr. Siloti); Adagio in C Major, BWV 1003 (arr. Godowsky); I Call Unto Thee, O Lord, BWV 639 (arr. Busoni); Sheep May Safely Graze, BWV 208 (arr. Grainger) – Jean Alexis Smith, piano – MSR Classics MS 1720, 46: 01 (2/15/20) ****:

Ms. Smith’s all-Bach recital, 2017-2018 derives from sessions at the First United Methodist Church, Bella Vista, Arkansas, which provides a fiercely live acoustic.

Smith takes Franz Liszt as her first among equals in the realm of Bach organ transcription to the modern piano, and his own arrangement of the great Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 543 receives loving treatment here.  The Weimar-period piece bears aspects of both Italian and North German rhetoric, the Prelude in 4/4 and the Fugue in 6/8. With pedal points and chordal trills, the music assumes a rich sonority, the texture of the Fugue rife with episodes in fragments from the subject and rhythmic augmentations and harmonic modulations in the answer. The tension becomes quote compounded when the chordal progression confronts quick passages in 32nd notes. The coda, nothing less than colossal, resounds in keyboard fanfare.

Smith opens with the Toccata in C Major, usually incorporated as Toccata, Adagio and Fugue, BWV 564, here in a massive transcription from Ferruccio Busoni. She will perform the Adagio as a separate entity. Again, the Toccata resonates much in the North German style, ornamental and lushly textured, making some commentators speculate it served as part of an instrumental concerto. Highly sectionalized, in a staggered opening, the piece manages both a declamatory and manically assertive style; and many connoisseurs will recall that the famed Horowitz: The Historic Return employed this thrilling work to astound devotees. My own favorite among players of the organ version remain Lionel Roeg. Director Edgar G. Ulmer used the Adagio in A minor, with its plaintive, somber progression, as mood setting for his coven scene in the classic The Black Cat.  The Adagio concludes with a contrasting section in the “Durezze e Ligature” style, characterized by strong dissonances and dense sonorities.

Smith plays a series of meditative selections, the most famous of which, Sheep May Safely Graze from Cantata No. 208, she realizes in the Percy Grainger arrangement, set as a series of thirds, what Grainger calls “a free ramble” in bucolic sonorities. Grainger entitles his arrangement Blithe Bells to invoke the sheep, that is, we, Our Lord’s comforted charges. A lithe and liquid touch informs the Ignaz Friedman arrangement of My Heart Ever Faithful from Cantata No. 68. The tenor part carries the motif, “Sing praises; be joyful.” Here, the clarion sound invokes Jesus the Groom, betrothed to Mankind.  

From British virtuoso Harold Bauer we have The Soul Rests in Jesus’ Hands from Cantata No. 127. The bell tones invoke a sweet death, given that the faithful soul receives an eternal awakening. Ferruccio Busoni transcribed ten of Bach’s chorale-preludes, and I Call Unto Thee, O Lord rings with a tragic anguish of a soul’s plea for metaphysical intervention. A slow parlando, the music carries its own cross. Alexander Siloti’s transcribed and transposed Bach’s Organ Prelude in E minor that had been dedicated to his Wilhelm Friedman Bach. Raher in ostinato format, the simplicity of the progression more than imitates the C Major Prelude of WTC, Book I. The quiet poise of the work figured largely in recitals as an encore for Emil Gilels. The last of the studied adagios comes from the master of transcription – both of Bach and Chopin – Leopold Godowsky, who spoke of his art as “an essay on a musical subject.” Godowsky has taken for piano arrangement the slow movement from the Solo Violin Sonata No. 2 in A minor, BWV 1003. The resultant, songful serenity and blissful transparency of effect provides evidence for the claim the piano need not be classified a percussive instrument.

—Gary Lemco


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