Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Orchestral Transcriptions by RESPIGHI and ELGAR: Three Choral Preludes [11:44]; Sonata in E minor BWV 1023* [10:33]; Prelude and Fugue in D major BWV [10:14]; Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor BWV 582 [15:09]; Fantasia and Fugue in C minor BWV 537 [9:40]
* Ilkka Talvi (violin)
Seattle Symphony Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz
rec. Seattle Center Opera House, 15 October 1989, 2 October, 8 June, 12 September, 1 January 1990 and 8 January 1991. DDD
NAXOS 8.572741 [57:19]
 
This disc was originally issued by Delos and it now returns to the catalogue on Naxos. Bach purists do not need to read any further. Itís almost certainly not for you. For those who can accept these sorts of transcriptions as works in their own right, this will definitely be of some interest. Respighi is a master of orchestration and his handling of the orchestral forces is up there with the best of them; just donít expect the sort of fireworks that you will find in his Roman Trilogy. Indeed, much of his work here is very subtle; more akin to the kind of writing you will come across in the Ancient Airs and Dances.
 
When listening to a disc such as this itís always best to avoid going to the shelves, searching out recordings of the original works and then making comparisons. This would be a pointless exercise, just like comparing apples and pears. The key question is - do these transcriptions do justice to the original works and are they worth hearing? On the whole the answer is a definite yes. Stylistically the Three Choral Preludes are played with a seamless, legato string tone. Beauty of sound seems to be the essence of Respighiís writing and of Gerard Schwarzís direction of the orchestra. The playing is top drawer but to be frank, after a few minutes the effect can be somewhat cloying especially with such a preponderance of understated, quiet music. The arrangement of the Violin Sonata, expertly delivered by soloist Ilkka Talvi, strikes me as being very successfully crafted and more interesting to listen to. There is still some wonderful legato playing to be found here but the whole performance is nicely pointed with far more light and shade when compared to the Choral Preludes. You can listen to this as a baroque concerto in its own right.
 
Respighiís mastery really kicks in when we come to the Prelude and Fugue in D major BWV 532 and the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor BWV 582. The sound-world is now somewhat closer to Stokowskiís transcriptions. Iím not implying that they are in any way tasteless or over the top but there is an air of excitement running through both works. Just for the record Iím a big fan of Stokowski. Schwarz really lets rip here and the orchestral recording is sumptuous and detailed. The players clearly enjoy themselves. Itís really stirring stuff. There are a few shaky moments of ensemble in the Fugue in D as the fragments fly around the various sections of the orchestra but these instances are fleeting and donít spoil the experience.
 
Now to the highlight of the disc - the Fantasia and Fugue in C minor BWV 537. This isnít transcribed by Respighi but by Elgar. After a delightfully Elgarian opening of great nobility the Fantasia - with its great climax and bass-drum thump at around 5 minutes in - gives way to a Fugue that is a real kitchen sink job. Trumpets and percussion have a field day. Havergal Brian himself would surely approve of what takes place here! It borders on bad taste to be honest but itís also incredibly compelling and exciting.As a piece of orchestral writing itís a winner. Stokowski sounds relatively understated by comparison. What stunning playing too.
 
To conclude, hereís a summary in two words - buy it.
 
John Whitmore
 
Some fabulous, exciting playing in wide-ranging sound Ė buy it.