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Bach Transcriptions
Track listing below review
Holger Groschopp (piano)
rec. Studio Gärtnerstraße, Berlin, Germany, 17-20 May 2011
CAPRICCIO C5198 [63:20 + 50:55]

Bach-Busoni is probably the best known and most familiar linking of two composer's names in the genre of keyboard transcription. In an age of authenticity the 'need' for such re-workings and re-compositions will be debated but I believe that the best transcription can be valuable in throwing light on the compositional techniques of both transcriber and transcribed. What cannot be in doubt is Busoni's life-long devotion to and admiration for the works of Bach.
It is still quite common to encounter one or other of these transcriptions as part of a recital. The value of this set is that it brings to one place the bulk of the keyboard transcriptions in the process labelling it as Volumes 5 and 6. Volumes 1-4 were four separate discs - also available as a bargain box - also played by Holger Groschopp of Busoni transcriptions of other composers' work including Bach's non-keyboard music. Disc 1 / Volume 5 of this two disc set is devoted to the most famous Bach-Busoni transcriptions including the big organ-derived Toccatas. Groschopp recorded both discs in an intense four day period and that alone represents a pretty Herculean effort - these works require immense technical and intellectual address.
That said, I find my response to this set rather mixed. There is no doubting Groschopp's ability to bring clarity and power to these extraordinary works. At the same time, particularly in the large-scale works, I find his approach rather brusque and unbending. This rather dry and literal style might well appeal to those who do not like their Bach romanticised but at the same time it is important to appreciate that we are listening to baroque music through the ears of a late-romantic composer. This means to me that there should be a degree of expressive latitude integral to the performance. The famous Toccata in D minor is a case in point. There is a legitimate case for not playing this work as if it is in a massive resonant acoustic. However much I admire the sheer clarity and articulate brilliance of Groschopp's playing I find the absence of any affectionate phrasing or warmth disconcerting. This impression is aided to some degree by both the Capriccio recording - quite close and analytical and the instrument Groschopp uses. The liner gives no indication as to what it might be but again I find it just a little hard-edged. In comparison to other versions I know I find I do not respond to this degree of objectivity. Interestingly the two books of Choral Preludes respond better to this cool approach. In such favourites as Book 1 No.2 "Sleepers Awake", it is good to hear it played with simple clarity. Likewise, the value of the set is reinforced by being able to hear all ten of these Choral Preludes in one group.
Disc 2 / Volume 6 is devoted to a variety of Bach's keyboard works. There is some sense of filling in gaps so the music ranges from the literally fragmentary Das Calvarium BV B46 - left hanging in mid phrase - to the massive Improvisation on the Bach Chorale 'O friend of souls, how well is me' BV271. A word of caution about this latter - highly impressive - work; Busoni's original was for two pianos - we are given here Groschopp's own version for one piano. This was necessary, according to Groschopp because; "[it helps in] avoiding the dangers of playing on two pianos, which can easily become somewhat inflexible and unwieldy." That's a bit of nonsense if ever I read one - and best ignored. Groschopp's single piano version works very well - it is only when you make direct comparison that the extra weight and sonority the second keyboard brings is apparent. A highlight of this second disc is the Fantasia Adagio and Fugue that Busoni compiled from three disparate works. Groschopp plays this with beautiful finesse and a real sense of line and phrase. So much so that it leaves you wondering why he chose to play other works here in such an abrupt manner.
The disc is completed with three arrangements by composers from Busoni's circle. I suppose the interest is in hearing the influence of the master on the pupils and to bulk out an otherwise short playing time. By including Michael von Zadora's version of In Dulci Jubilo and Egon Petri's Sheep may safely graze the familiarity quotient of the second disc is increased without adding greatly to our knowledge of Bach arranging, very pleasant though they are. The final work is a real curio and one quite out of place here. It is a salon polka by Busoni's mother entitled Ferruccio. Groschopp actually plays it very well indeed - with a wit and freedom that escapes him elsewhere in this set. Together with the couple of fragments and Groschopp's solo piano version of BV271 it is a first recording but to be honest that would not be enough of a reason to buy this disc.
The engineering is good, able to cope with Groschopp's wide dynamic range - the hardening of tone at the loudest dynamics sounds more like a characteristic of the instrument rather than the recording. Through much of the second disc in particular a rather insistent bird can be heard singing in the background - this is only really audible on headphones and even then it is far from badly distracting. The liner in German and English only contains an interesting essay by the pianist discussing the works on the disc.. Given that all of the major works here are available in other versions either singly or in partial collections the main reason for considering this set is the convenience of this wonderful music being collected in one place. Holger Groschopp is a very capable and dedicated guide but his preferred unsmiling approach to the large organ transcriptions means a qualified recommendation.
Nick Barnard

Track listing
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Transcribed Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)

Prelude and Fugue in D major for organ BWV532 (1888) [11:05]
Toccata in D minor for Organ (1899) [8:07]
Choral Preludes for organ Books I and II (1897) [28:45]
Toccata in C major for organ BWV564 (1899) [15:23]
Choral Prelude from the Fantasia Contrappuntistica (1912) [3:40]
Capriccio on the departure of his most beloved brother BWV992 (1914) [9:15]
Fantasia BWV906, Adagio BWV968 and Fugue BWV906a (1914) [11:37]
Canonic Variations and Fugue from the Musical Offering (1916) [7:07]
Floh-Sprung Canon (1914) [0:49]
Das Calvarium (fragment) (189?) [1:44]
Improvisation on the Bach Chorale 'O friend of souls, how well is me' (1916) [14:24]
Transcribed Michael von ZADORA (1882-1946)
Chorale for Organ 'In Dulci Jubilo' BWV751 (1912) [2:09]
Siciliano from Flute Sonata in E flat major BWV1031 (1911) [2:01]
Transcribed Egon PETRI (1881-1962)
Sheep May Safely Graze from Hunting Cantata BWV208 [1944] [4:47]
Anna WEISS-BUSONI (1833-1909)
Salon Polka for Piano Op.9 'Ferruccio' [3:22]