December 04, 2014


Bach: Orchestral Suites Nos. 1-4. Academy of Ancient Music conducted by Richard Egarr. AAM Records. $29.99 (2 CDs).

Bach: Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-6. Concerto Köln. Berlin Classics. $29.99 (2CDs).

Bach: French Suites Nos. 1-6; Fantasia and Fugue in A minor, BWV 904 (two versions); Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor, BWV 903. Sergey Schepkin, piano. Steinway & Sons. $24.99 (2 CDs).

Bach-Busoni: Prelude and Fugue in D, BWV 532; Chorale Prelude “Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ,” BWV 639/177; Bach-Liszt: Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 543; Bach-Siloti: Adagio from Sonata No. 5 in F minor, BWV 1018; Beethoven-Liszt: An die ferne Geliebte; Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 32. Tien Hsieh, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Bach-Reger: Chorale Prelude in B minor, BWV 727; Bach-Siloti: Prelude in B minor; Bach: Prelude and Fugue in B minor, BWV 869; Bach: Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, BWV 903; Bach-Kurtag: Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, BWV 106; Timo Andres: Heavy Sleep; Mohammed Fairouz: El Male Rachamim (A Prayer in Memory of György Ligeti). Bruce Levingston, piano. Sono Luminus. $15.99.

Frederick the Great of Prussia: Flute Sonatas Nos. 126, 146, 182, 184, 189, 214 and 261. Mary Oleskiewicz, flute; Balázs Máté, cello; David Schulenberg, fortepiano. Hungaroton. $19.99.

     The notion of a definitive way to play Bach is more than passé – it is absurd. Even in the days when gigantism was the rule and Bach’s vocal and instrumental delicacy were transformed into something befitting 19th-century opera, the composer’s underlying musical ideas burrowed out of the sound morass and found their way to the light of expressiveness. The rediscovery of historically accurate performance practices and use of historic instruments or careful copies, all coupled with the lower tuning that Bach would have used, have largely made it possible to return Bach’s music to the way the composer intended it to sound – although it is arguable whether those practices really give listeners the same impression that Bach intended, since the recital and concert halls in use today have acoustics so different from those of the performance spaces of Bach’s time. So do the homes where people listen to recordings – not to mention other listening places, such as cars and outdoors. There are so many variables that it is unreasonable to state definitively that a certain way of playing Bach is 100% right, 100% of the time. Nevertheless, the search for better Bach (however defined) continues, and several new recordings take particularly interesting approaches to Bach’s music.

     The low French tuning of A=392Hz is important both for the Academy of Ancient Music’s recording of the Orchestral Suites and for Concerto Köln’s readings of the Brandenburg Concertos. The low pitch provides a mellow sound that makes it easy to play these works with very small ensembles while allowing instruments with penetrating qualities, such as trumpets, both to achieve prominence without strain and to fall back into the overall ensemble without difficulty. These two historically informed recordings not only share excellence of actual sound but also provide evidence of how thoughtful today’s performers are about Bach’s music. Richard Egarr, for example, takes a strong stance against recent trends toward playing the Orchestral Suites very quickly (a particular issue in No. 4), and an equally strong position in favor of performing them with just one player per part. The result is works that unfold at a pace that seems wholly natural, with musicians playing what is essentially chamber music rather than what later generations would describe as orchestral pieces. The flexibility of the performers, and the way in which the contrapuntal lines are enhanced through the small ensemble size, combine to produce fluid, flowing readings that remain dancelike but do not sound nearly as hectic as do some readings of recent times. This AAM Records recording also shows to excellent effect the differences in Bach’s sound in the suites: Nos. 3 and 4 both include trumpets and timpani, while No. 1 features oboes and bassoons and No. 2 uses the solo flute in a very forward-looking manner. Thoughtful and joyful, these performances are as first-class as are those of the Brandenburg Concertos on the Berlin Classics label. Here too are small-group readings that emphasize the string complements in Nos. 3 and 6, the solo recorder, oboe and trumpet in No. 2, the harpsichord virtuosity of No. 5, the Italian and French elements intermingled in No. 1. Of particular interest is the scholarship that led to re-creation of the mysterious “echo flutes” for which Bach called in No. 4 – instruments that no longer exist but that appear to have been something like two side-by-side recorders per instrument, with finger holes and  mouthpiece allowing one side of the dual instrument to play loudly and the other quietly. Whether the re-created “echo flutes” heard in this recording – to excellent and surprising effect – are actually what Bach meant when he wrote “Fiauti d’Echo” in the score is not absolutely certain, but they certainly shine the light of a new perspective on music that, however familiar, never grows stale when played with the understanding and enthusiasm it receives here.

     At something of the opposite extreme compared with meticulous attempts to reconstruct performance practices and instrumentation as Bach would have known them is the approach of Sergey Schepkin in his pursuit of recordings of all Bach’s keyboard works. Schepkin, although he has studied historic performance practices, is primarily interested in adapting Bach’s music to the capabilities of the modern piano, using the instrument – which did not exist in Bach’s time – to explore elements of the keyboard works that Schepkin believes to be inherent in them but not capable of being fully extracted by using the instruments for which the music was originally written. This is a somewhat quixotic task: there is no evidence that Bach wished for a way to express more than he clearly did express by use of the harpsichord and clavichord. But it makes for some intriguing recordings, such as the new Steinway & Sons release of the six French Suites. Schepkin is quite capable of playing with the clarity of a harpsichordist – although the piano’s percussive mechanism can never match the actual sound of the plucked strings of the older instrument – but for the most part, what he does here is to use the piano’s tonal richness and ability for emotional expression to make the French Suites into works that Bach might have written if today’s Steinways had existed some 300 years ago. Schepkin finds passion and drama in these suites as well as continuity: if the six were written as a set (an arguable proposition in itself), then Schepkin believes they start in the comparative dimness of No. 1 and progress by stages to the ebullience of No. 6. And he performs the suites on that basis, turning them, essentially, into an extended “from darkness to light” tone poem. The approach will scarcely be to all tastes, and this release gets a (+++) rating as a result: it is very well played indeed, but whether it goes too far interpretatively is a matter of opinion. Listeners who simply want to revel in Schepkin’s exceptional pianism will rate it (++++). The French Suites are supplemented by a very fine and thoroughly pianistic recording of the complex and harmonically advanced Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor, BWV 903, and by a pair of readings that show just how carefully Schepkin has thought about using a piano for Bach’s works: two separate performances of the Fantasia and Fugue in A minor, BWV 904, one on a Hamburg Steinway and the other on a New York Steinway. The differences in sound between the two instruments lead to distinct differences in the effect of the music – which, of course, reemphasizes the reality that everything Schepkin performs is a sound world away from what Bach planned for the harpsichord or clavichord.

     Some composer-pianists who came after Bach solved the problem of how to play Bach’s works by moving beyond the Baroque into their own era, transcribing and modifying Bach to place his pieces firmly in the pianistic repertoire. The two best known for doing so are Liszt and Busoni, although others, such as Alexander Siloti, Max Reger and György Kurtág, made Bach transcriptions as well. The sampling of them performed by Tien Hsieh on a new MSR Classics release shows both the usefulness and the limitations of this approach. Busoni’s well-known transcription of Prelude and Fugue in D, BWV 532, lies well on the piano (it would be interesting to have a recording of both Busoni’s version and that of Eugen d’Albert), and Busoni’s version of the Chorale Prelude “Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ,” BWV 639/177, is similarly true to the original while adapting it to the larger compass and greater tonal capabilities of the modern piano. Liszt’s transcription of the rhapsodic Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 543, places it firmly within the realm of 19th-century piano fantasies, while Siloti’s respectful handling of the Adagio from Sonata No. 5 in F minor, BWV 1018, emphasizes the warmth of the music. In all these cases, the composers – creating works primarily for themselves to play – stayed close to Bach’s originals while expanding the music’s emotional compass for the taste of a later time. This is in a way more satisfying than returning to Bach’s actual works and simply playing them on a fuller instrument with a wider emotional range, although some listeners will find this to be a distinction without a difference. In any case, Hsieh plays all the pieces with care and attention, avoiding overly grand emotive sweeps but making no attempt to perform the music with the poise and clarity that would have been expected in the Baroque era but not at the times the transcriptions were made. This CD is entitled Mostly Transcriptions 2, and it includes, in addition to the Bach material, Liszt’s piano transcription of Beethoven’s song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte. Here as in some of his Wagner transcriptions, Liszt takes very few liberties, from time to time actually omitting repeated portions of melody in order to bring the varied accompaniment into the limelight. The songs flow into one another with apparent naturalness, as Liszt makes the cycle into an expressive fantasia rather than a set of “songs without words.” Hsieh plays here as well as she does in the Bach transcriptions, but the mixture of material is rather odd – and made more so by the inclusion, as the largest work on the disc, of something that is not a transcription at all: Beethoven’s final piano sonata, No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111. This large-scale two-movement work has been highly influential not only in the piano literature but also outside it – it was the template for Prokofiev’s Symphony no. 2, for example. But it seems to get short shrift here, not because Hsieh is not up to the technical demands of the music – she handles them with aplomb – but because the sonata does not really fit in the context of the transcriptions that make up the rest of the disc. The thought behind the programming of the CD is rather difficult to discern: it is not as if the sonata is the primary work and the transcriptions are encores (indeed, the sonata seems appended to the other music). Hsieh handles the sonata well, although she is not especially attuned to some of its more modern-sounding elements, such as the proto-jazz passages in the second movement. The disc as a whole seems somewhat disconnected, perhaps aimed primarily at fans of Hsieh rather than at listeners mainly interested in the music. This odd focus, or lack of focus, results in a (+++) rating, which, however, does not diminish the appeal of Hsieh’s pianism.

     Bruce Levingston’s pianism is also fine on a new Sono Luminus CD containing Bach and Bach transcriptions, but here too the program is rather odd – certainly a mixed bag – and as a result, this is also a (+++) recording. Levingston is quite happy to use all the resources of a modern piano to bring out what he sees as the emotional core of the works here, which include Reger, Siloti and Kurtág transcriptions as well as two particularly wonderful Bach keyboard works, the Prelude and Fugue in B minor, BWV 869 and the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, BWV 903. This Prelude and Fugue features contrapuntal complexity that never sounds quite right on the piano, which is essentially a harmonic instrument; and Levingston’s focus is the emotional communication of the piece rather than its structure, an approach that is certainly pianistic but not especially true to the composer’s intentions. The Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, one of Bach’s most forward-looking works, fares better here, perhaps because it contains some genuinely modern-sounding elements that seem to make Levingston particularly comfortable. Being a work that somewhat transcends its time, the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue can also stand up better than many of Bach’s other pieces to piano performance – although it always sounds best when skillfully played as Bach intended, on the instruments of his time. Levingston here seems to be using Bach as an emotional touchstone for the world première recordings of the brand-new works that open and close the CD. Timo Andres’ Heavy Sleep is apparently a primary concern of Levingston here, since it gives the disc its overall title. The work is yet another of many musical meditations on death, inspired in this case by a poem called Nocturne by Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer. It would be unreasonable to expect an audience to know the poem or to be required to search for connections between the poet’s words and Andres’ music; Levingston opens the CD by simply letting Andres’ piece flow in its unhurried but never magisterial way. Then, after the Bach and Bach transcriptions, Levingston gets to the longest work on the disc, the five-movement El Male Rachamim, which Mohammed Fairouz wrote as a tribute to his late teacher, György Ligeti. This piece too takes its title from a poem, in this case one by Yehuda Amichai; the title means “God, full of mercy,” and the poem is based on a Jewish funeral prayer. The music itself – which, again, has to stand on its own, even for people who do not know the poem, or Ligeti, or Fairouz’ relationship to his teacher – is reasonably effective, including a certain amount of tension-and-release and a kind of dance of death midway through. Fairouz’ work actually contains some echoes of Ligeti, just as Andres’ in some ways echoes Bach (and, for that matter, Chopin). So this CD in its totality does have a certain degree of unity of theme and approach. But this is true only in a rather forced and academic way: heard simply as a sequence of musical pieces, Levingston’s recital, taken as a whole, is less effective than are some of its parts.

     Even in Bach’s own time, analysts, including other composers, were trying to determine the key to his unusually sublime and effective style. Johann Joaquin Quantz, for example, attributed the effectiveness of Bach to his seamless mingling of Italian and French stylistic elements, saying that Bach’s choice of the best elements of different countries’ musical styles produced Bach’s unique German one. Quantz (1697-1773) had his own ideas of style, especially as it related to the flute, for which he composed hundreds of concertos and sonatas and about which he wrote a highly respected treatise that is still used for information on performance practices of the 18th century. Quantz is nowadays as well-known as the flute teacher, flute maker and court composer to Frederick II of Prussia, known as Frederick the Great (1712-1786), as for his own poised and graceful compositions. The monarch himself, often spoken of as a highly skilled flute performer until tooth loss and gout-related hand swelling compromised his technique (he stopped playing altogether in 1780), is almost totally unknown as a composer. A new (++++) Hungaroton CD of seven of Frederick the Great’s flute sonatas – all of them world première recordings – makes it possible to judge Frederick’s accomplishments in composition, and shows him in quite a favorable light. None of the sonatas breaks any major new ground, and all of them pretty much follow Quantz’s models, but they are uniformly well-made and contain their share of surprises – a striking B-flat minor flourish to open No. 182 in B-flat major, for example. Like Quantz, Frederick composed in keys more remote than the usual ones used for the flute in the 18th century, and he had some fondness for minor ones: four of the seven sonatas on this disc are in minor keys. (Bach’s Musical Offering, dedicated to Frederick, is in C minor, and the virtuosic trio sonata within it was written for Frederick to play the flute part – indicating that the monarch had considerable ability as a performer.) The Hungaroton performances – which use a tuning of A=385Hz, even lower than that used in the new Academy of Ancient Music and Concerto Köln discs – are uniformly first-rate. And they use instruments carefully created as replicas of those of Frederick’s and Bach’s time – indeed, Mary Oleskiewicz’s flute is based on one made by Quantz. The chance to hear Frederick the Great’s flute sonatas performed so well and with such a focus on historic instruments and practices is one not to be missed by anybody interested in music created in Bach’s time by a monarch of rare musical talent.

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