Astonishingly, the Hyperion label are up to volume 9 of their ongoing series of Bach Piano Transcriptions, which started nearly ten years ago with Nicolai Demidenko’s outstanding Bach/Busoni discs (CDA66566 and CDA67324). Not all have been at the same level of interest, but the previous volume featuring versions of mainly organ music by Eugene d’Albert was a real pleasure, and I’m happy to say that this new collection is even better. It includes the Bach Book for Harriet Cohen, a compilation of twelve short transcriptions done by many of pianist Harriet Cohen’s composer friends, including such interesting names as Granville Bantock, Lord Berners, Goossens, Herbert Howells, John Ireland, William Walton, and inevitably Bax, which were published under this title by Oxford University Press, and premièred by Cohen at the Queen’s Hall London in 1932. On either side of this core collection are sets of four other British Bach transcriptions, by Cohen herself, Myra Hess’s famous Jesu, joy of man’s desiring, and to close the great Scottish pianist Ronald Stevenson’s rendering of Komm, süsser Tod. There is also another version of Komm, süsser Tod as track 9, this time by Frank Bridge, which reminds us that there is an unavoidable degree of duplication in such repertoire.
Initially one might balk at the prospect of sitting through such a homogeneous collection, but there is much satisfaction to be derived from the minutiae of the composers’ differing approaches to the challenge. Unsurprisingly, few of them approach the grand monumentality of Busoni’s benchmark transcriptions, not least because the original Bach works are mostly rather less weighty than those Busoni tackled, but also perhaps because the composers are British, and more inclined to gentleness than spectacle. There are some stand-out pieces, nonetheless: the opening Little Fugue as arranged by Leonard Borwick has a plain, no-nonsense literalness that works admirably, Bax’s version of the the G major Fantasia’s middle section catches the optimistic swagger of Bach’s original, and the unsettled chromaticism of Meine Seele erhebt den Herrn is palpably eerie in John Ireland’s brief piece.
Jonathan Plowright brings much subtlety to the performances, managing to differentiate between the transcribers’ approaches to such a degree that the transition from one piece to the next can be quite disconcerting; the recording admirably serves his pianism. It is fascinating to hear the music of one of the great pivotal figures in Western music filtered through the intelligences of composers in a different cultural tradition, in a different century; the enduring beauty of these great works re-dressed for a new audience makes this CD a very satisfying experience.