Back in September of 2011, I took great pleasure in writing about Mostly Transcriptions, a CD self-produced by pianist Tien Hsieh, currently living in Folsom, California. Last week I was glad to see that Hsieh has continued her interest in “the art of the transcription” (the title of my favorite Earl Wild recording) in the program she prepared for the Noontime Concerts™ series held at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco. That program featured two major transcriptions of organ music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Liszt’s transcription of the BWV 542 prelude and fugue in A minor and Ferruccio Busoni’s transcription of the chorale prelude “Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ” (I call on Thee, Lord Jesus Christ). Both of these selections are included on Hsieh’s new CD, again self-produced and released last month, Mostly Transcriptions 2.
From the point of view of repertoire, the new release is far more focused than the first one. While all of the transcriptions on the first CD were by Liszt and Busoni, the composers ranged from Bach through Franz Schubert to Frédéric Chopin and Robert Schumann, while the “mostly” included a 2008 composition by Glen Cortese, as well as the three movements of Liszt’s Venezia e Napoli. The new CD limits the source material to Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven; but Liszt and Busoni are now joined by Alexander Siloti in the respective roles of the transcribers. Beethoven is also the beneficiary of that “mostly” adverb with a performance of his Opus 111 sonata in C minor on the final two tracks.
I feel it necessary to offer a few words about the “art of the transcription,” since I was drawn to that Wild recording because I had attended the Carnegie Hall recital at which it was recorded. Wild had prepared a program that featured a different transcriber with each selection. Giving the recording more attentive listening than I could muster during the immediacy of performance, I began to appreciate the range of the different skill-sets that had been engaged, which, in turn, engendered greater appreciation of how both Liszt and Busoni went about their respective tasks.
We know from the historical record that both of these men were highly skilled as virtuoso pianists. It is entirely possible that either of them could have just sat down in front of Bach’s organ score and started playing from it (just as last season, at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, a guitar student performed the Chaconne movement from the BWV 1004 D minor solo violin partita by playing directly from the violin part). However, such a perspective might short-change the possibility that both men were as skilled at listening as they were at performing and composing.
Thus, there is an element in Hsieh’s performance of BWV 543, particularly the fugue, that suggests Liszt’s awareness of the sonorities of the full forces of the pipe organ (probably fuller than any enjoyed by Bach himself). More specifically, Liszt seems to have given pride of place to the pedal work, which is kept at a relatively modest level until the counterpoint begins to thicken towards the end of the fugue, at which point it practically roars out the fugue subject, just to make sure that the listener has not lost track of it. Hsieh was not shy about giving Liszt’s rhetorical strategy its due. Indeed, that sense of gradual build-up to a peak that sounds almost as if it were beyond the capacity of the piano serves equally as well for a rhetorical framework for the variations on the Arietta theme in the second movement of Beethoven’s Opus 111, entertaining the hypothesis that Liszt’s transcription of BWV 543 might serve as a “listener’s guide” to Beethoven’s approach to variation in this particular sonata (if not to his approach in other variations compositions).
On the other hand the chorale preludes occupy a semantic domain that differs significantly from the preludes and fugues. While the latter compositions may well have been played in church, it is likely that they served more for processional and recessional purposes than for any strictly liturgical matters. Hymns, on the other hand, were entirely liturgical; and Albert Schweitzer was one of the first to observe (at least in writing) that one cannot play a Bach setting of hymn without knowing what the words were meant to express. Busoni’s transcription of BWV 639 (taken from the Orgelbüchlein, which was specifically structured around the different rites in the annual liturgical calendar) suggests that the transcriber knew as much about the text, and chose to honor its meaning, as Bach did. If Bach had intended to provide the congregation with a setting in which they could meditate on those words, Busoni’s transcription would serve the same purpose in a church that lacked an organ.
The issue of verbal semantics also comes into play in the one transcription of Beethoven on this recording, that of the Opus 98 song cycle An die ferne Geliebte (to the distant beloved), prepared by Liszt. This is, for better or worse, a more problematic affair. The Peters edition of this transcription includes the words of the song, which basically guide the pianist in finding the vocal line within the fabric of the transcription. Given that Liszt provided the words in this manner for his Schubert song transcriptions, we can assume that, in this case, the words were placed by Liszt, rather than by some editor. Still, vocal composition was never Beethoven’s strong suit; so, while Liszt produced a credible account of Opus 98 (as much from a listener’s perspective as any other), the overall impact is not as great as the other selections on this recording. Far more interesting is the way in which this recording suggests that the more accomplished Opus 111 may well have been informed by Beethoven’s study of Bach, which dates back to his childhood studies with Christian Gottlob Neefe.
The one Bach transcription that is not based on organ music is the one by Siloti. This is take from the Adagio movement of the BWV 1018 sonata in F minor for accompanied violin. This is one of a set of six sonatas that receive far less attention than the six sonatas and partitas for solo violin. Personally, I find this undeserved neglect; and it would not surprise me if Siloti felt the same way. Hsieh certainly captured the necessary “chamber music rhetoric” of this movement in her performance.
Nevertheless, the organ transcriptions stand out as the “main attraction” on this new recording. With that in mind, I would like to conclude with a paragraph from Schweitzer’s Bach book (translated into English by Ernest Newman) on this matter:
There is more to be said for the transcription of organ works for the piano than for the reverse proceeding, since the piano, as Liszt said, is to music what engraving is to painting; it serves to multiply and disseminate works of art. When masters like Liszt, Saint-Saëns, Busoni, Reger, Philipp, d’Albert, Vianna da Motta, and Ansorge undertake to arrange Bach’s organ works for the pianoforte, the intelligent player has not only the advantage of learning works from which he would otherwise be barred, but the æsthetic pleasure of finding organ effects cleverly realized on the piano. Bach, who was himself passionately devoted to the art of transcription, would have been delighted with the pianoforte apostles of his organ gospel.
Schweitzer wrote this as a practicing organist. If Hsieh the pianist was not aware of these words, her recording still honors their spirit in the best possible way.