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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
The Complete Works Inspired by Bach: The Transcriptions

Fantasia and Fugue in G minor (BWV 542) S.463 [11.06], Six Preludes and Fugues for Pedal Organ, S.462 [54:16]
Joyce Hatto (piano)
Recorded 8th November 2004, 5th January 2005 at the Concert Artist Studios, Cambridge.

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Though I haven’t had the opportunity to make a score-by-score comparison, I get the impression that these are relatively non-interventionist transcriptions, aimed at making the music available to pianists rather than creating the music anew. The effect reminded me of two old school companions who used to amuse themselves by playing Bach’s organ works as piano duets, the upper one taking the manuals part as written, the other assuming the relatively easy task of playing the pedal part, doubling it at the octave as required. Except that here one pianist has to cope with it all …

And yet, something new is inevitably created. This has a quite different sound from Bach-on-the piano in the sense of playing works intended for the harpsichord or clavichord on the piano (the "48", the Suites, the Goldberg Variations and so on) without actually altering any of the notes. Mindful that Bach’s organ music contains effects of massive grandeur which the composer knew perfectly well could never be attempted on the domestic keyboards, Liszt has enriched the texture in many places. This is not just a matter of romantic "thickening up", which was more of a Busoni speciality, since the organ itself provides many more notes than the organist actually plays. For non-technically expert readers I will try to explain that even the most modest instrument, with the full registration which most of these fugues seem to require, will provide not just the note actually played, but that an octave above (the 4-foot stop), that an octave and a fifth above (the 2⅔) and that two octaves above (the 2-foot). And, while I hope that an organist would not muddy a Bach texture with a 16-foot stop on the manuals (which would give him the same note an octave below) he might very well add it to the pedals. In addition, his organ will very likely have a couple of mixtures offering something like the note two octaves and a third higher and two octaves and a seventh higher.

Obviously, no one pianist, and probably no two pianists, could reproduce all this on the piano, and it would sound absolutely ghastly if they did, since the extra notes are not actually perceived by the ear as such but as extra colours. This is because they are all notes contained in the natural harmonic scale, that is to say, they are already contained in the one single note, and the colour of that single note depends on how strong or how weak these "harmonic partials" are. This is why the flute, which has very few harmonic partials, is much gentler than the oboe, which has a lot.

In one sense, then, the piano can reproduce the effect of the organ’s stops – by putting the pedal down. If you strike the piano’s middle C firmly with the pedal down, depress silently a C-chord higher up the piano and then release the pedal, you will hear the C-chord sounding (though not very strongly). This is because all those other notes are contained in the original C, and by putting down the pedal you are leaving the strings relating to those notes free to vibrate in sympathy. So some discreet pedalling, such as Joyce Hatto provides and such as Liszt surely expected (but which I venture to imagine Hatto would not consider suitable for Bach-on-the-piano taken from harpsichord originals), can create an illusion of the organ’s grandeur.

Careful pedalling can also go some way towards compensating for the fact that organs are normally placed in churches with longish reverberation periods (those few churches with a "concert hall" acoustic are strangely unsatisfactory since organ music is normally calculated by the composer with reverberation in mind), though here we come up against another of the fundamental differences between the two instruments, which is that the organ has a "soft" attack but sustains the note while the piano has a "pinging" attack and the note dies away.

So in the end, we have here neither Bach-on-the-piano nor a pianistic illusion of Bach-on-the-organ but something different, romantically rich and satisfying as long as you are not incurably wedded to authentic instruments and an "authentic" approach. And yet, Bach is incredibly, wonderfully, resistant to transcription. Although this disc is part of Hatto’s ongoing Liszt cycle, in the end the voice we hear is Bach’s, and I am sure this is what Liszt would have wished. Much of the credit for this must also go to Hatto since she is able to create a convincingly full and pianistic sound while at the same time creating that sense of inexorable movement, never pressing the music but never letting it drag, which seems to be an essential of Bach interpretation whatever the instrument used. Once again, then, Joyce Hatto has found exactly the right style for the music she is playing. If you like your Bach full-blooded, and if you like "big-band" performances of his orchestral works which nevertheless remain in touch with the spirit of the composer (such as, for example, Sir Adrian Boult’s wonderful set of the Brandenburgs), then I think you will get a lot of pleasure out of this. All the same, I wish I could have heard Joyce Hatto’s thoughts on the "48" instead.

The recording is good though without quite the bloom and three-dimensionality of the best modern recordings. There is a generalized booklet note intended to accompany (I think) three discs; this sort of cost saving is all very well if, without it, we wouldn’t have had the record at all, but I think it might have been more clearly related to the single discs – it took me some time to work out that I hadn’t, in fact, been sent the wrong insert entirely.

Christopher Howell

Concert Artist complete catalogue available from MusicWeb International

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