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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



BACH-BUSONI: Piano transcriptions
Johann Sebastian BACH
(1685-1750) arr. Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)

Prelude and Fugue in D, BWV 532, Chorale-Preludes: Komm, Gott Schöpfer! BWV 631, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme BWV 645, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland BWV 659, Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g'mein BWV 734, Ich ruf' zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ BWV 639, Herr Gott, nun schleuss' den Himmel auf BWV 617, Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt BWV 637 & 705, In dir ist Freude BWV 615, Jesus Christus, unser Heiland BWV 665, Prelude and Fugue in E flat BWV 552
Ákos Hernádi (pianoforte)
Recorded 17-19.2.1999, Hand Rosbaud Studio, Baden-Baden
ANTES Edition BM-CD 31.9137 [57.19]


Legend has it that an American lady of high society, on being introduced to Busoni at a party, exclaimed in innocent rapture, "Say, you can't mean Mr. BACH-Busoni!". Maybe nowadays Bach-Busoni is not served up so regularly and, whether Busoni's own music is actually played any more than it was then, ladies of high society, on whatever side of the Atlantic, if they know the name at all will most likely know he was a composer.

Still, it's Mr. Bach-Busoni we have here and, at least in places, marvellous to hear him again. Hernádi asks us to hear these as romantic pieces and hopes that the "reader" (what about the listener?) will "enjoy the works presented here both as Bach-Busoni and as an incomparable collection of imaginative piano sonorities". His flak-shooting essay (well, better stimulating thoughts by the performer than a dutiful essay by a hack who couldn't care less, I suppose) warns us that "the ten chorale-preludes will surely inspire no Urtext-possessed flagellants to take out their whips. The era of dogmatism seems to have come to an end with the close of the last century". Cowering in my trench with my Urtext as my only protection, I have to say that some procedures seem to me a little odd. When a piece is for the most part a straight transcription such as any of us could do, as in the second Durch Adams Fall prelude (it's not a fugue, as the booklet says), why does Busoni suddenly rewrite a few bars completely and then go back to the straight and narrow? It would appear that most of the preludes from the Orgelbüchlein are too short for him so he sets about making them longer. At its most innocent this just means repeating sections that Bach didn't intend to have repeated, but it can also mean the wholesale addition of new sections of his own composition (remarkably well done, it must be said) or, at the very least, the odd cadenza and a few extra chords at the end. At the other extreme, why make a big cut towards the end of the E flat "St. Anne" Prelude? And is it really so imaginative to have so many thunderous bass octaves, imitating a 16-foot stop that wasn't available to Bach?

Urtext-possessed flagellation apart, there are some outstanding successes on this record, together with some failures. When I put it on and heard the start of the D major Prelude I thought what an over-pedalled mess. Since there are no bass-notes to be held down under the faster notes I don't understand why Hernádi thought this necessary. I know some cathedral acoustics make a worse mess still, but if the idea is not to imitate the organ but to create new piano music, then surely it should sound like good piano music. Also in the St. Anne Prelude, the downward scale-figure which pervades the dotted-rhythm sections is systematically blurred with pedal. However, in the D major fugue Hernádi readily communicates his excitement at the music and builds it up very well indeed. So this is one success and another is very definitely Nun freut euch where the separation between running semiquavers, striding quavers and the chorale melody is superb, and the semiquavers express that sheer joy in moving the fingers brilliantly that is the essence of a certain part of Bach's work. Another success in a wholly different vein is Wachet auf, where the chorale melody and the theme which appears on the strings in the Cantata - one of Bach's greatest melodies - both sing out nobly over a rich bass. This is a welcome counter to the chopped-up phrasing we often get in the name of authenticity today. Ich ruf' zu dir is made into a beautifully romantic nocturne, though Hernádi's tone, attractive in piano, gets a little hard as the volume rises. And what a splendid peal of bells he and Busoni make of In dir ist Freude.

A piece that doesn't work is the first of the Durch Adams Fall preludes. When a chorale melody and a legato bass-line enclose semiquaver figuration in the inner parts, the only way to hold the long notes is to pedal through the semiquavers. This is all right when they are fairly diatonic, but when they are as chromatic as here the result is a dissonant muddle. As far as I can see the miscalculation is Busoni's rather then Hernádi's.

I could go on but I think I have made it clear that there is much more to be enjoyed than not. There is something rather heartwarming about Hernádi's patent enjoyment of everything he does and I'd like to hear him in some real Bach - provided he keeps a close watch on his pedalling.


Christopher Howell

Hernadi web site


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