Its natural habitat having been severely diminished over the past half-century, “hyphenated Bach” (i.e. arrangements of Bach by prominent musicians) might well be heading for extinction. It was once encountered freely throughout the world’s recital halls: Bach-Brahms, Bach-Friedman, Bach-Liszt, Bach-Reger, Bach-Siloti, Bach-Tausig, and especially Bach-Busoni. Nowadays hyphenated Bach piano transcriptions are rarely heard, done in by stylistic propriety and unflattering comparisons to the sleek sonicscapes of the historical performance movement.
Hybrids they may be, but that does not lessen their potential effectiveness. Perhaps their virtual banishment has been an overreaction, and perhaps it’s high time that superlative recital openers such as the Bach-Tausig Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 or the spectacular transcription of the Chaconne from the D minor Violin Partita by Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) are restored to the repertory.
The Chaconne of J.S. Bach (1685-1750)—the name refers to a variation form of sorts that wrings changes over an unchanging bass line rather than embellishing a tune—is an Everest of the solo violin repertory, a supreme challenge to all who attempt it. Lengthy, complex, virtuosic, and awe-inspiring, it has long been an object of fascination to piano composers ranking from consummate masters (Brahms, who transcribed it for piano left hand), to minor masters (Joachim Raff), to piano-technique mavens (Isidor Philipp, also for the left hand), to the downright obscure (Hans Harthan, whose two-hand version just might be worthy of somebody’s attention someday.)
Ferruccio Busoni’s magisterial transcription fully respects Bach’s original while avoiding any hint of museum stuffiness by taking full advantage of the modern piano’s manifold possibilities. As one of the supreme pianists of his or any other age, Busoni knew just what the piano could do; as a ranking composer (even if his star has dimmed) he knew just what caliber of music he was transcribing and acted accordingly. Spectacular and impressive, the Bach-Busoni Chaconne gives us hyphenated Bach at maximum strength, a master musician’s tribute to his noble predecessor.—Scott Foglesong
Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.
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