AOM Logo February 2001

Johann Sebastian Bach: TRANSCRIPTIONS

Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (arr. Stokowsi); Fantasy and Fugue in C Minor (arr. Elgar); Musical Offering (arr. Webern); Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Major "St. Anne"' (arr. Schoenberg); "Little" Fugue in G Minor (arr. Stokowski); Suite for Organ, Harpsichord and Orchestra (selections from Orchestral Suites 2 & 3 arr. by Mahler)

Sony SK 89012

David Aspinall

Record Cover

Salonen here enters, of course, the kingdom over which Leopold Stokowski is acknowledged sovereign. I bow to that reality even while admitting to a preference for the Ormandy recordings from the same era, a judgment that perhaps owes more to the choice of repertoire than to its treatment. That Salonen has not chosen, à la Eiji Oue, to go head to head with these golden agers in the same repertoire is probably wise. With the exception of the ubiquitousToccata & Fugue and the brief "Little" Fugue, this collection is refreshingly off beat. What gives it extra interest is the variety of famous names who here demonstrate their very individual genii could serve the same master. As the notes have it, "this recording revels in the unorthodox and inauthentic". This is, one assumes, the best way to head off the purist's objection to "improved" Bach. The adaptors are not "hacks" but some of the 20th century's premier composers and conductors. And they are certainly not trying to improve Bach, but merely make him more intelligible to contemporary sensibility.

Once all this self-justification is out of the way, and we get down to the music, does Bach need Salonen, or for that matter Stokowski? An unqualified yes from this listener. If the goal is only to open thousands of closed ears to Bach's glory. That's what the Ormandy discs did for this reviewer thirty years ago. I have no doubt that were the master with us today he would be adapting his own works for every imaginable combination of uses, and probably, time failing even his fecundity, gladly allowing others to do the same. As Stokowski said, " If Bach were alive today ... he would find no limits to his expression, but would use every resource of the orchestra today as he used every resource of the organ in his own time."

Elgar, who viewed Bach as perhaps the greatest of all musical geniuses, nevertheless felt compelled to dress him in full Victorian regalia - cymbals, harps, trumpets etc. Elgar feared that even a composer of Bach's stature was likely unapproachable for modern audiences. What resulted, Gregory Van Den Toorn points out in his notes, was indeed a monster, but, he hastens to add, "what a marvelously plush, full-dress monster". Bach Britannia - a hybrid but fascinating for all that.

Webern, in complete contrast, takes the Ricercare theme of the Musical Offering and breaks it into fragments. He called his approach Klangfarbenmelodie - "flecks of sound", spread all around his band. Yet, these fragments are hardly deserving to be described as solos. What Webern achieves, though, is a feeling totally unlike the sustained timbre of the original keyboard. Music of the 18th century is swaddled in the disquiet of the modern world.

With most of the music not too familiar, with ripe recording, and with orchestral sonorities which underline the profundity of Bach's utterance, this CD is a keeper. And these adaptations leave me, if truth be told, wishing that we had hundreds more Bach transcriptions to draw from (I confess also to similar sentiments about the solo works of Chopin, whom it seems no longer fashionable to treat this way).

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