The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: YOU MUST HEAR THIS – Live in a Moscow concert, the late Russian pianist Emil Gilels performs as an encore the haunting, poignant and beautiful Prelude in B minor, a transcription by Alexander Siloti of an original by Johann Sebastian Bach.

August 23, 2013
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Lately, I have been listening to a lot of transcriptions of Johann Sebastian Bach (below) on the piano. You know how these things go in spurts.

Bach1

As I have said before, transcription is a time-honored practice, especially for Baroque composers.

Most often, the transcriptions are based on preludes and fugues, passacaglia, toccatas, chorale preludes and movements from the cantatas.

But I have found that far too many transcriptions get too grand for my taste – too orchestral and powerful with too much emphasis on deep bass octaves and too many thick chords. The piano is not a pipe organ, which is part of its virtue.

I prefer that the transcribers preserve at least some of the transparency of the original Bach.

Which is one reason why I like the transcription in B minor by Alexander Siloti (below) of a prelude in E minor from the first book of Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” Siloti basically took a motif and developed in into a separate piece.

Alexander Siloti

It is so hauntingly beautiful.

Plus it is useful as well as beautiful.

Having played it myself – or at least played at it — I can tell you that it is harder to pull off than it sounds. Siloti’s transcription is really the same short piece of music repeated twice. So it serves as an etude, a study in voicing of first the right hand and then the left hand.

It is also a question of coordinating and strengthening the   fourth and fifth fingers on the right hand, and the wide, rolled arpeggios in the left hand with an emphasis on the thumb as the carrier of a melody.

And like so much of Bach’s music, it is also an etude in the evenness of all those sixteenth notes.

I’ll bet a lot of his students and subsequent piano students at the Moscow Conservatory benefitted from practicing and playing this gorgeous miniature that some artists use as effective encore, bringing a concert to a quiet and soulful close.

All in all, it is a great little miniature that deserves to be heard, learned and performed more frequently.

Just listen to it in the hands of a master, as the late and great Emil Gilels plays it in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, where Siloti himself was a teacher of the great pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninov (seen below on the right, with Siloti on the left).

Alexander Siloti and Sergei  Rachmaninov

First, here is the Bach original, with the fugue, played in a YouTube video by Friedrich Gulda, a teacher of Martha Argerich:

And here is the live performance by Gilels:

What do you think of the work and the performance (read the listener comments on YouTube)?

Do you have favorite Bach transcriptions for the piano?

What do you look for in a piano transcription of Bach?

The Ear wants to hear.


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