While the debate continues about whether Bach’s keyboard music should be, or indeed is suited to, being performed on the piano, it is cautionary to be reminded by Hyperion’s ongoing series of Bach transcription recordings that many great pianists of the past saw fit to adapt Bachs music for their instrument, rather than playing it verbatim. The most renowned transcriber of Bach’s music was Feruccio Busoni, whose original music was largely overshadowed by his attempts to render the effect of, primarily, Bach’s organ works through piano sonority. Nonetheless, many other pianists produced piano versions of Bach works, from Myra Hess to, on this new Hyperion CD, Eugen d’Albert. On d’Albert’s extraordinary personal life the CD liner notes make enjoyable if astonishing reading; they also make an important point, which is that there is a substantial difference between Busoni and d’Albert’s Bach transcriptions. Busoni emulates the scale and richness of organ sound when laying out his piano versions, and they are of seriously challenging pianistic difficulty. Nikolai Demidenko’s two CDs of these on Hyperion, CDA66566 and CDA67324 magnificently demonstrate both how marvellously resonant and palm-stretchingly tricky these versions are. d’Albert’s versions are less grandiose, he does not attempt to suggest organ textures, and consequently they sound more like original pianistic conceptions. Conveniently, there is very little overlap of repertoire between Busoni and d’Albert, so one can enjoy the productions of both composers without having to choose between them. Piers Lane begins the present CD with a magisterial performance of d’Albert’s highly successful transcription of the huge Passacaglia and fugue in C minor, a work which exercised the imagination of many composers. There are arrangements for two pianos by Reger, and for orchestra by Respighi and Stokowski. The rest of the disc is given over to well-known organ preludes and fugues including the huge Toccata and Fugue in F major, and ‛Dorian’ Toccata and Fugue in D minor. These works offer serious challenges to the transcriber: how, for instance, does one deal with the lengthy pedal solo in the F major? Not entirely successfully, apparently, even in Piers Lane’s more than capable hands, d’Albert opts for slightly tedious unison bass octaves. I wonder what Busoni would have done? The architectural character of Bach’s organ music is what enables him to write at such significant length, and lacking the resources of the organ’s ranks of stops Lane articulates the sectional changes by beautifully judged varieties of touch and dynamic, and frequently I was struck by how successful much of this music is in these exceptionally fine, albeit inevitably monochrome, piano performances. Lane adopts tempi that are entirely convincing, and he largely eschews rubato, while accomodating the late-romantic spirit of the transcriptions. Listeners who appreciate superlative piano-playing, who enjoy fascinating transcriptions, and even those who would prefer to hear Bachs organ works senza organ, will all appreciate this very classy issue.
Bach Piano Transcriptions Vol 8 d’Albert