A Bach Book for Harriet Cohen and other British transcriptions
A Bach Book for Harriet Cohen (1931-32)
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme BWV645 arr. Granville BANTOCK (1868–1946) [4:58]
Fantasia in G major BWV572 arr. (1927) arr. Arnold BAX (1883–1953) [4:15]
In dulci jubilo BWV729 arr Lord BERNERS (1883–1950) [1:50]
Das alte Jahr vergangen ist BWV614 arr. Arthur BLISS (1891–1975) [3:30]
Komm, süsser Tod BWV478 arr. Frank BRIDGE (1879–1941) [3:43]
Andante from Brandenburg Concerto No.2, BWV1047 arr. Eugene GOOSSENS (1893–1962) [3:58]
O Mensch, bewein’ dein’ Sünde gross BWV622 arr by Herbert HOWELLS (1892–1983) [5:32]
Meine Seele erhebt den Herrn BWV648 arr. John IRELAND (1879–1962) [1:39]
Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich BWV605 arr. Constant LAMBERT (1905–1951) [1:31]
Ach bleib’ bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ BWV649 arr. Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872–1958) [5:35]
Herzlich tut mich verlangen BWV727 arr. William WALTON (1902–1983) [2:39]
Wir glauben all an einen Gott BWV740 arr. William Gillies WHITTAKER (1876–1944) [4:34]

Other Transcriptions
Little Fugue in G minor BWV578 arr. (1926) Leonard BORWICK (1868–1925) [3:27]
Be contented, O my soul from Cantata BWV155 arr. (1931) Harriet COHEN (1895–1967) [5:13]
Adagio from BWV564 arr. Myra HESS (1890–1965) [3:39]
Jesu, joy of man’s desiring from Cantata BWV147 arr. (1926) Myra HESS (1890–1965) [3:45]
O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig BWV656 arr. (1925) Leonard BORWICK (1868–1925) [7:11]
See what his love can do from Cantata BWV85 arr. (1937) Hubert FOSS (1899–1953) [3:20]
Sarabande from Cello Suite No. 6, BWV1012 arr. (1932) Herbert FRYER (1877–1957) [2:57]
Komm, süsser Tod BWV478 arr. (1991) Ronald STEVENSON (b1928) [4:53]
Jonathan Plowright (piano)
rec. September 2008, Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk
HYPERION CDA67767 [79:03]

It was in 1931 that pianist Harriet Cohen invited leading British composers to contribute to a ‘Bach Book’ to be published by the Oxford University Press. Of the many approached, Elgar agreed but in the end didn’t deliver, and Holst declined. Otherwise she had considerable success, and the music was duly performed at the Queen’s Hall in October 1932. The book is arranged alphabetically, which is how Hyperion presents it in this, the ninth volume in their ‘Bach Transcriptions’ series, one I have followed with a very real admiration. The disc begins and ends with other transcriptions as well, in the main by outstanding pianists – Hess, Borwick, Fryer and Stevenson - and also by Hubert Foss, whose contribution is notably successful.

In his notes Jonathan Plowright cites Ronald Stevenson’s dismissal of a number of these Bach transcriptions as ‘how not to write for the piano’. It’s a challenging procedure, thus to lament the incompetence of the music you are performing, but one need not necessarily agree with Stevenson. It’s true that Bantock’s Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme contrasts strongly with Busoni’s arrangement, and its ‘pastoral sixths’ - Plowright’s amusing description – might seem to lend a somewhat trivial, Arcadian air, but heard in the right light I think it’s actually rather effective. Bax’s transcription had been written in 1927 for Cohen and it’s powerfully conceived, and magnetically performed here. Lord Berners’ offering was In dulci jubilo BWV729 and its deft pianistic conception must surely escape Stevensonian censure – it flowers ripely without any ponderous explication. Bliss provides a spare and reserved setting, and Bridge’s is similarly refined but more expansive and textually dense. Goossens’s is the only orchestral transcription, and Howells prefers a rather terse and brief setting. Lambert is lithe and bright in Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich whilst Walton later expanded his transcription of Herzlich tut mich verlangen into the fourth movement of The Wise Virgins. There’s an especially rapt setting of Wir glauben all an einen Gott BWV740 by William Gillies Whittaker. But of them all Vaughan Williams’s Ach bleib’ bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ BWV649 is, without doubt, the most spiritually uplifting, the most powerfully conceived and the most wholly successful. Plowright plays it with the strength, serenity and purpose it deserves, and demands.

The other transcriptions, not from Cohen’s Bach Book, are no less exciting. Leonard Borwick was a front-line pianist of the day and his two contributions are a grand Little Fugue and a Leipzig Chorale that gathers tension until a thunderous organ swell emerges with magnificent and unshakeable conviction. Myra Hess is also represented by two transcriptions; the first, obviously enough, is Jesu, joy of man’s desiring but the other, her arrangement of the Adagio from the Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C minor BWV564, is very much less well known. Harriet Cohen’s own Be contented, O my soul sports a cool recitative and a pleasingly expanded aria. Hubert Foss’s contributions dates from 1937 and is praised by Stevenson for its ‘air’ – by which a lack of unpianistic tangle is meant, one assumes. Herbert Fryer was around a decade younger than Borwick, and an equally distinguished pianist; he made one 78 disc, for Vocalion. He chooses the Sarabande from the Cello Suite in D major and he catches its meditative movement adeptly. Stevenson, finally, goes for something typically different, his transcription of Stokowski’s transcription of Komm, süsser Tod which ends the disc with great character and strength.

The recorded sound is about as perfect as it gets and Plowright proves to be an interpreter of marvellous tonal resources. This series continues to impress in every way.

Jonathan Woolf

Plowright proves to be an interpreter of marvellous tonal resources. This series continues to impress in every way.