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BBC Philharmonic Orchestra Leonard Slatkin
CHANDOS CHAN 9835 [73' 03"]
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The first sound heard on this CD is a fortissimo organ which then dissolves into the orchestra - Bach's C minor Passacaglia and Fugue is briefly heard as he intended before master-orchestrator Respighi lavishly expands the music's colour-potential. A couple of hundred of years are thus linked and we're off on an adventure, one taking Bach's 18th-century genius - the foundation of Western music - with pieces for organ and unaccompanied violin reflected in the personalities and orchestral skills of later composers.

Elgar's voice is always discernible in his version of the C minor Fantasia and Fugue - the slow movement of the Second Symphony is initially called to mind (a funeral march suggested by clearly differentiated timpani and bass drum strokes). The players relish the Fugue's extrovert orchestration with Slatkin, in his second recording of it, driving the music forward exuberantly. Slatkin has chosen three other English Transcriptions. Vaughan Williams uses the black-and-white medium of strings for his robust re-working of a Fugue - a brisk walk in bracing country air - while Granville Bantock in 1945 might well have provided a bedrock of optimism with his plush setting of the indelible melody that is Sleepers Awake. Slatkin leads this with maximum expression. Holst's joyous, dancing version of `Fugue a la gigue' takes Bach's single musical subject through the orchestra picking up instruments en route until, at 2'30", trombones (Holst's instrument) cut through the texture as the arrangement's crowning glory - a brilliant piece played here with infectious panache.

Max Reger - a composer shamefully underestimated in some quarters - provides a richly harmonised dressing for a chorale prelude and moves the soul. Reger's deeply felt arrangement shouldn't surprise because, like Bach, he thought of music in absolute terms. Here, Reger's intellect and heart eloquently merge in Bachian tribute in this affecting performance by the BBC Philharmonic's strings.

This CD is notable for two first recordings. Honegger's C major Prelude and Fugue has astringent textures smoothed by mellifluous saxophones. With a bass drum to punctuate and underpin and a wonderfully vulgar trumpet trill to conclude - there's nothing like a bit of French irreverence! - Swiss-born Honegger's lean and individual timbres intensify Bach's counterpoint with point and style. Joachim Raff, also Swiss-born (but German) and the only composer-arranger here not to straddle the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, comes up with a sure-fire winner. His orchestration of the Chaconne that closes Bach's D minor unaccompanied violin Partita is full of many felicitous touches. If Brahms (especially), Bruckner, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky all come to mind, these aren't bad composers for Raff to have on his CV. The broad, emotional statement at 6'00" is particularly memorable, so too (at 10'00") the suggestion of music Bruckner had yet to compose, a striking episode appended by a gorgeous cello melody stamped Mendelssohn. A real discovery and, amazingly, this hugely enjoyable work is only now recorded.

To counterbalance Respighi's opulence, Schoenberg's equally ambitious and personal scoring of the St Anne Prelude and Fugue dines out on multifarious orchestral hues and strives for resolute power (climactically achieved by Slatkin's structure-conscious conducting). Schoenberg never loses the line of the music despite his requirement to utilise the entire instrumental armoury - and I hope he intended some of his mixes with a sense of humour: don't worry if you raise a smile during the Prelude!

The recording quality happily marries presence, detail and space. I did feel the Respighi to be a tad diffuse for my taste with violins lacking a little body, but the cathedral of sound created here is impressive. A suspicion of an edit at 0'57"in track 2 (Respighi's Fugue) aside, this is a super CD - one thoughtfully planned regarding key and mood which encourages continuous listening. This `Bach through the ages' release eloquently testifies to Bach's incorruptible invention and how successfully successors have illuminated his music through the orchestral medium. The BBC Philharmonic respond whole-heartedly to Slatkin's zest and imagination: his innovative programming in future releases (with the BBCSO) will no doubt further enhance Chandos's catalogue.


Colin Anderson

and Lewis Foreman adds

There was a time when romantic orchestral transcriptions of Bach's keyboard and instrumental works were severely frowned on by superior people, and one played 78s of Stokowski's or Sir Henry Wood's Bach transcriptions very much in private and for consenting adults only! Now, thanks to renewed enthusiasm for transcriptions such as Schoenberg's version of the 'St Anne' Prelude and Fugue, Elgar's orchestral Fantasia and Fugue and Stokowski's transcriptions, possibly on the back of the re-release of the Disney film Fantasia, many orchestral versions are being aired in this Bach 250th anniversary year, and good it is to have them. And what a range of material there is to choose from. By the way, do revisit Chandos's superb earlier BBC Philharmonic disc of 'Stokowski's Symphonic Bach' (CHAN 9259).

As always when forgotten repertoire is revived an enthusiast somewhere is usually responsible for researching the literature and promoting the idea, and this case we have to thank Edward Johnson, Stokowski enthusiast and longstanding adviser to various conductors pioneering forgotten music, who explored the repertoire and contributes the excellent and scholarly notes. So thanks Ted, this is a brilliant idea reaching glorious fulfilment at the hands of the BBC Philharmonic, Slatkin and Chandos.

This CD is slightly different from previous approaches to Bach transcriptions, which have tended to concentrate on conductors' orchestrations; but here the transcriptions are all by composers, whose personalities generally shine through. Here we have nine views of Bach from composers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from Raff and Reger to Honegger and Schoenberg. The old favourites by Elgar and Schoenberg are gloriously done, but the real interest of Slatkin's programme is such things as the sumptuous orchestration of BWV 582 by Respighi, Honegger's incisive approach to BWV 545 complete with two saxophones, and one of the biggest, Raff's enormous orchestral version of the celebrated Bach Chaconne, originally for solo violin but here turned into a romantic orchestral movement of epic proportions. The Raff is fascinating, a post-Schuman composer developing Bach's instrumental writing into a quasi-symphonic orchestral canvas, and making one realise how fundamentally the romantic orchestral repertoire of composers from Schumann to Brahms was rooted in Bach. Forget the Chaconne and listen to Raff, for it makes a glorious orchestral movement in its own right, and Raff is not always above introducing his own supporting material when he feels the need. The Raff and Honegger are both world premiere recordings.

The BBC Philharmonic and the Chandos sound give us sumptuous playing, gloriously caught. Slatkin is ideal in this repertoire, emphasising the romantic rather than the classical but he keeps the music moving. In introducing the notes Leonard Slatkin sets the whole project in context: 'The transcribers were trying to bring the master's works to a wider public . . . for several generations Bach's music was heard first in various orchestral versions . . . this disc will represent for some listeners a kind of authenticity of first exposure . . .'.

The two most familiar tracks the Schoenberg and Elgar are as well done here as anywhere, and it is just a pity that Elgar's own version of Fantasia and Fugue should only have been recorded in acoustic days, when it needs the Chandos sound. The two world premiere recordings - the Honegger and Raff - are particularly worth having, and you would have to look hard to find several of the others. The unexpectedly plain Bantock Wachet auf, previously only available on Weldon's Columbia 78, or Holst's Fugue à la Gigue at three minutes the perfect short encore for a Holst programme, provide splendid foils to the more exotic fare around them. This is not one of those programmes were one should warn against playing it consecutively - these orchestrations make a riveting sequence. Another composer where one might have expected orchestral excess is Reger's orchestration, but his string orchestra version of the chorale prelude 'O man bewail thy grevious sin', made in wartime and close to his own death, creates a gripping hushed intensity and is the still heart of a generally noisy and often exuberant programme.

The CD runs just over 73 minutes - apparently a tenth orchestration, the Bach/Saint-Saëns Sarabande was recorded but had to be omitted owing to playing time consideration. As these were BBC Philharmonic/Chandos joint sessions, the material is all destined to be broadcast, and enthusiasts in the UK may like to look out for the Saint-Saëns when it is aired on Friday 28 July around 11.30am.

Incidentally, Chandos used to have some of the best sleeve designs around, a notable tradition established from the outset by their talented first art director Janet Osborn in LP days, but they seem to have lost some of their touch recently - this example certainly contributes nothing to an otherwise wonderful package.


Lewis Foreman




Colin Anderson

Lewis Foreman

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