SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

“Change Is Gonna Come” = Works of HAGEN, BACH, SOR, MAW, WENNAKOSKI; DOWLAND – Kumela, guitar – Alba
BACH Organ Arrangements – Hansjorg Albrecht, organ – Oehms

Two recordings that demonstrate the good, the bad, and the so what? of transcriptions. Both are entertaining.

Published on October 11, 2011

“Change Is Gonna Come” = Works of HAGEN, BACH, SOR, MAW, WENNAKOSKI; DOWLAND – Kumela, guitar – Alba<br/> BACH Organ Arrangements – Hansjorg Albrecht, organ – Oehms

“Change Is Gonna Come” = JOACHIM BERNARD HAGEN: Variazioni per il Liuto del Sigr: Locatelli; BACH: Ciaccona BWV 1004; FERNANDO SOR: Fantaisie, Op. 7; NICHOLAS MAW: Music of Memory; LOTTA WENNÄKOWSKI: Balai; JOHN DOWLAND: Farewell – Petri Kumela, guitar – Alba multichannel SACD ABCD 313 [Distr. by Albany], 73:50 ****:

“BACH: Organ Arrangements” = Sinfonia in D Major for Organ and Orchestra from Cantata No. 29, BWV 29; Chaconne in D Minor for Violin from Partita No.  2, BWV 1004; Italian Concerto in F Major for Harpsichord from Clavier-Übung Part 2, BWV 971; French Overture in B Minor for Harpsichord from Clavier-Übung Part 2, BWV 831; Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor for Organ, BWV 582 – Hansjörg Albrecht, organ – Oehms Classics multichannel SACD OC 634 [Distr. by Naxos], 73:41 ****1/2:

The only piece these two recordings have in common is Bach’s monumental Chaconne, supposedly written in 1720 in response to the death of the composer’s first wife. However, the recordings also express a common faith in the art of transcription. And both discs prove that while some transcriptions are more successful than others, most transcriptions (or arrangements) result in a substantially different piece of music from the original.

In his slightly wayward but interesting notes to the recording, guitarist Petri Kumela explains the connection between the exalted concept of his album and the corny photos that adorn it. “I am greatly amused by the comic associations that present themselves when a parallel is suddenly drawn between the repertoire for guitar CD and, say, some sociological phenomenon that has stirred the nation. This aura of pompousness and absurdity also inspired the name of the disc and provided the initial impetus for a hilarious photoshoot through summertime Helsinki.” Of course, one man’s hilarious is another man’s not-so, but let that go for now. The contents of the disc are nonetheless deadly serious: six works from almost as many centuries that explore the idea of variations on a theme or, in other words, change in a musical sense.

Three of the works represent transcriptions, and in the case of the Hagen piece, originally written for the lute, a transcription of a transcription; Hagen took as his starting point a series of variations found in Pietro Locatelli’s Violin Sonata Op. 8, No. 6, adding a final variation of his own. Dowland’s work, too, was originally written for lute but in an age when the lute was still in its heyday as an expressive solo instrument. By the time Joachim Hagen (1720-1787) was writing, the lute had just about disappeared from the musical scene. Kumela’s transcription is debonair, the playing tenderly beautiful, where the lute imparts a piquant pinginess to Hagen’s original. Then there is Bach’s great Chaconne, the finale of the Partita No. 2 in D Minor for solo violin. It has been transcribed for a variety of instruments, including piano, organ (see below), and flute, as well as guitar. Kumela plays his own arrangement of the work. The piece is famous for the endlessly ingenious changes that Bach rings on his simple four-note ground. On the violin, the Chaconne has a tragic intensity, thanks in part to all those keening double stops. The guitar transcription, with its rolled chords replacing the double stops, swaps an introspective rumination for Bach’s intensity. Change, indeed.

To this point in the recital the music may seem a little soft-focus for some tastes. Kumela’s beautiful playing notwithstanding, I confess I find the Fantaisie by Fernando Sor, written as a vehicle for his own virtuoso concertizing, more engaging than the Hagen and Bach transcriptions, with its series of ear-grabbing and thoroughly idiomatic challenges for the guitarist. Even more grueling, at over twenty minutes’ duration, must be Nicholas Maw’s Music of Memory, which, true to its name, is a series of permutations on a theme that appears only in fragmentary form intermingled with the variations. The theme is taken from the Intermezzo third movement of Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor. When the theme fitfully appears, is given a dreamy, remote sort of treatment, gentler and yet statelier than in the original. The variations themselves—wildly, nervously chromatic—seem only distantly related to the theme, as if glimpsed through the fog of memory.

Finnish composer Lotta Wennäkoski’s Balai, written for Petri Kumela, seems to stretch just a bit the concept of theme and variations that informs this album. It’s an odd little piece in which insistent strumming provides a sort of ground to the harmonic, timbral, and dynamic permutations the composer injects. At the center of the work is a brief, quirky intermezzo called Ballet that “momentarily interrupts the rhythmic continuum with its decadent dance steps.” The composer further explains, “Balai is French for a lute, a broom or a dust mop. No brushes were, however, necessary this time—a sufficiently wide range of timbres could be produced with just a guitar string, a fingertip and a fingernail.” I agree; the composer manages to weave a variety of interesting musical textures based on “the most common technique on the world’s most common instrument—strumming.”

Taken altogether, this is a stimulating program despite my reservations about the pieces originally written for other instruments. Kumela plays with polish and great technical skill and has been beautifully captured by the Alba engineers. Stick with the program: if, like me, you have a few reservations at the start, by the end you’ll feel this is time very well spent.

With Hansjörg Albrecht’s recording of Bach arrangements we revisit the mighty Chaconne, here transcribed for organ by Arno Landmann. Instead of the note of introspection that the piece takes on in its arrangement for guitar, on the organ it has a solemn majesty, with more the air of an elegy than a lament. For me, the piece works better on the organ; still, as with most arrangements, it’s substantially a different piece from the original, the stark tragedy expressed by the solo violin traded for a more dignified reflection on loss.

Landmann’s arrangement of the Italian Concerto also succeeds in that Landmann is careful to observe Bach’s original intention: to use the two-manual harpsichord to mimic the balancing of solo and ripieno forces in a Vivaldi-style concerto. It could be argued that this is, in fact, easier to achieve on the organ, and so the arrangement is an improvement on Bach’s original. Not so, however. It’s good that Landmann keeps the textures light, preserving some of the nimbleness of the original, but again, the work is a different affair in arrangement, missing much of the éclat and daring of the harpsichord version.

For me, Albrecht’s own arrangement of the other half of Bach’s Clarvier-Übung Part 2 is more successful. Here, Bach trades Italian brilliance for French stateliness, and that air of grandeur is immediately captured in the strutting dotted rhythms of the Ouverture. Perhaps the great variety of expression that Bach achieves in his suite of stylized dances makes this a more promising subject for transcription. Albrecht is able to make a number of telling executive decisions as far as coloration is concerned. He keeps the series of gavottes, passepieds, and bourrées light and airy for the most part; for the concluding Echo he balances a heftier “symphonic” sound against the more soloistic answering echo. In all, this is a pretty effective transcription. And so is the most obvious candidate for arrangement, the Sinfonia from Cantata No. 29. The cantata was written for the 1731 inauguration of the Town Council in Leipzig, a festive occasion that called for festive music. This is another arrangement of an arrangement; here, the first arrangement is by Bach himself. He took the Preludio from his Partita No. 3 in E Major for solo violin and dressed it up royally: an obbligato organ part of great brilliance set against an orchestra replete with trumpets and drums. Marcel Dupré’s arrangement transfers the interjections of the orchestra to the solo organ, and the result is a work of symphonic sweep and grandeur.

The recital ends with the Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, which doesn’t need arranging since it was originally conceived by Bach for the organ. The passacaglia section invites comparison with the Chaconne; both feature a grand and somber theme and variations. With the even grander fugue that follows, BWV 582 is a rousing way to cap this recital.

Even if the Landmann arrangements aren’t as natural a fit as those by Dupré and Albrecht, they’re still instructive. And they are very well played, as is the whole recital, by Hansjörg Albrecht, who’s not only a noted organist but a harpsichordist and conductor as well, artistic director of the Munich Bach Orchestra and Choir. He plays the organ of the Church of St. Paul zu Harsewinkel, which sounds for all the world like a cathedral organ of the late Baroque but which was actually inaugurated in 2004—a very grand instrument. Oehms’ SACD recording is pretty grand, too, with a canny sense of depth and churchy ambience.

—Lee Passarella




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