Classical Reissue Reviews

BACH-RESPIGHI: Three Chorale Preludes; Sonata in E Minor; Prelude and Fugue in D Major; Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor; BACH-ELGAR: Fantasia and Fugue in C Minor – Seattle Sym./ Gerard Schwarz – Naxos

BACH-RESPIGHI: another successful hyphenated composer of the twentieth century.

Published on August 15, 2012

BACH-RESPIGHI: Three Chorale Preludes; Sonata in E Minor; Prelude and Fugue in D Major; Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor; BACH-ELGAR: Fantasia and Fugue in C Minor – Seattle Sym./ Gerard Schwarz – Naxos

BACH-RESPIGHI: Tre Corali (Three Chorale Preludes); Sonata in E Minor, BWV 1023; Prelude and Fugue in D Major, BWV 532; Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 582; BACH-ELGAR: Fantasia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 537 – Seattle Sym./ Gerard Schwarz – Naxos 8.572741, 57:19 ****:

Sometimes, its seems as though Leopold Stokowski held the patent on orchestral transcriptions of Bach in the twentieth century. So it’s refreshing and instructive to hear what other master orchestrators had to say about Bach. Of course, Ottorino Respighi is just about as well known for his orchestrations of the works of others as for his original compositions. His Ancient Airs and Dances, based on Italian lute music; Gli uccelli (The Birds), based on Pasquini, Rameau et al.; and Boutique Fantasque, based on Rossini’s Sins of My Old Age are nearly as famous as his noisily exciting Roman Trilogy. Respighi’s transcriptions of Bach began rather modestly with his reworking of Sonata BWV 1023 for violin and continuo, which the Italian composer scored for violin, strings, and organ in 1909. The transcription is rather quietly undemonstrative, for Respighi at least. But predictably, his rescoring does give the work a ripe, late-Romantic gloss verging on the maudlin that, you may decide, the original can do without.

The other transcriptions speak much more confidently to Respighi’s skill as orchestrator and manage to become genuinely hybrid, hyphenated music: Bach-Respighi. The Three Chorale Preludes are based on Bach’s organ settings of Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland; Meine Seele erhebt den Herrn; and Wachet auf ruft uns die Stimme—slow, contemplative music that manages to rise to heights of grandeur in Wachet auf. Respighi’s treatments are highly respectful, but in those ringingly climactic final pages of Wachet auf, the Italian brings the modern orchestral brass to bear in a memorably effective way.

More extrovert still are the transcriptions of Prelude and Fugue in D and Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, Respighi triumphantly distributing the coloristic effects of the organ from growling double basses and tuba through the highest winds. This is brilliantly effective orchestration by any standard.

With Elgar’s transcription of the Fantasia and Fugue in C Minor, completed in 1922, we take a step backward to the confidently swaggering demeanor of Edwardian England, though the Great War and the death of Elgar’s supportive mate Alice might have been expected to take a toll on his creative energies. The composer’s modestly stated object in the piece was “to show how gorgeous and great and brilliant he [Bach] would have made himself sound if he had had our means.” The “means” include a battery of percussion straight out of Elgar’s wonderfully bloated symphonies, complete with snare drum, cymbals, triangle, glockenspiel, bass drum, timpani, and tambourine—plus two harps. Poor old Bach didn’t know what he was missing! But then in a very different way, Elgar makes this music his own just as Respighi did. And I find it a lot more fun, a real guilty pleasure.

This is another in Naxos’ series of reissues of discs that originally appeared on the Delos label. It goes way back to 1990 but sounds very well nonetheless, and the performances from the typically reliable Gerard Schwarz are exuberant, highly successful in parsing out the strands of Bach’s complex polyphony as transferred to the orchestra. Recommended—especially to those who think Bach in transcription for modern orchestra should take only the hyphenated form of Bach-Stokowski.

—Lee Passarella




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