Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
by Respighi and Elgar*
Tre Corali (Three Choral Preludes) [11:14]
Sonata in E minor, BWV 1023 [10:33]
Prelude and Fugue in D Major, BWV 532 [10:14]
Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 582 [15:09]
*Fantasia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 537 [9:40]
Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz
rec. Seattle Center Opera House, 2 October 1990 (Tre Corali); 8 June 1990 (Sonata); 12 September 1990 (Prelude and Fugue); 15 October 1989 (Passacaglia); 1 January 1990 and 8 January 1991 (Fantasia and Fugue)
NAXOS 8.572741 [57:19]
This is a delightful hour of listening, and for those of you who are weary of “historically-informed” Bach, this could be your disc of the year! In the liner-notes Keith Anderson quotes Elgar’s reasoning for his transcription of the Fantasia and Fugue in C Minor: “to show how gorgeous and great and brilliant he [Bach] would have made himself sound if he had had our means.” Surely Respighi’s intent was the same. Whatever their intent, they have created fantastically exuberant and colorful orchestrations of some of Bach’s greatest works.
The CD begins rather gently with the Tre Corali, first performed in New York in 1930, conducted by Toscanini. As in his Ancient Airs and Dances, Respighi remains truthful to the original source material, fashioning timbral combinations that were simply not available to Bach. The first chorale prelude is Nun komm, der Heiden Holland (BWV 659, which is not the familiar version from Orgelbüchlein), while the second and third preludes (Meine Seele erhebt den Herrn and Wachet auf ruft uns die Stimme) are better known as part of the Schübler Chorale Preludes. The Seattle orchestra plays with a warm, plush sound, making Bach’s writing sound positively romantic in origin.
Sonata in E Minor proved to be less enjoyable. The performance - featuring the orchestra’s concertmaster at the time, Ilkka Talvi - is first-rate, with a good sense of chamber-music dialogue and listening between soloist and orchestra. The problem lies in Respighi’s orchestration. The arrangement, for soloists, organ and string orchestra is too heavy and lacks timbral contrast. It very much reminded me of what recordings of Bach’s Violin Concertos made in the 1950s often sound like. Perhaps if I knew the solo sonata better I would more fully appreciate Respighi’s work, but this is, for me, the least interesting transcription on the CD.
The CD concludes with three splendidly lavish arrangements. Respighi’s transcription of the D Major Prelude and Fugue is for a large orchestra including piccolo, two flutes, three oboes, three clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tube, timpani, strings and piano duet. The orchestra used for the Passacaglia is even larger, adding a cor anglais, two more horns, and another trumpet, as well as replacing the piano duet with an organ! Here Respighi’s complete mastery of orchestration is readily apparent. Colors shift from one line to the next, sometimes highlighting the fugue subject, at other times drawing our attention to a particularly beautiful counter-subject. I grew up listening to these two pieces on the organ, and I feel sure that such familiarity only adds to my enjoyment of Respighi’s craft. Halfway through the Passacaglia I realized my face was a little sore from grinning for the last several minutes – a sure sign that I was completely taken with both the transcription and performance.
I first heard Elgar’s transcription of the Fantasia and Fugue on a RCA recording of Elgar’s The Kingdom, featuring the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Elgar’s arrangement of the Fantasia is literal and somewhat somber, but in the Fugue he allows himself greater liberties, adding some wonderful flourishes - the harpists must love this writing! - that immediately reminded me of his stunning orchestration of Parry’s Jerusalem. It is riotous fun, and I only wish Naxos could have found a way to record another transcription or two to fill the remaining twenty minutes of available time.
The last three works were recorded more recently by the BBC Philharmonic on Chandos: the D Major Prelude and Fugue conducted by Gianandrea Noseda (CHAN 10081, 2003) and the Passacaglia and Fugue, as well as the Fantasia and Fugue conducted by Leonard Slatkin (CHAN 9835, 2000). It must be said, as fine as the Naxos (originally Delos) recordings are, the Chandos are superior - especially the recording of the organ in the Passacaglia. The Slatkin-led performances are also played with more technical precision and greater abandon. But Seattle and Schwarz offer accomplished and enjoyable performances, in very good sound, gathered together on a CD at budget price.
This might not be “authentic” Bach, but it is magnificent Bach.

David A. McConnell
This might not be “authentic” Bach, but it is magnificent Bach.