The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: CAN YOU NAME THAT TUNE? The Ear did at the movies — and passes it along

December 29, 2015
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s officially winter.

Christmas and other holidays except New Year’s are over or close to over.

Winter break is taking place at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and other schools.

All that makes it a good time to see movies.

So there The Ear was, sitting in one of the cinemas at Sundance 608 on the near west wide in Hilldale Mall.

Before the movie and the previews began, lovely piano music was playing.

What is that? someone asked quietly.

The Ear wishes that maybe Sundance could find a way to show the composer, work and performer on some section of the screen that also shows advertisements.

That’s because The Ear has also heard other works there by Johann Sebastian Bach as well as a mazurka and a nocturne by Frederic Chopin. And he wants other movie-goers to know what they are hearing.

Anyway, this time it was  a beautiful but rarely heard piece that The Ear recognized right away.

It is the transcription or reworking in B minor by Alexander Siloti (below) of the prelude in E minor from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier by Johann Sebastian Bach. 

It is a gorgeously poignant Romantic piece by an accomplished Russian musician and pianist.

Alexander Siloti 

It is so hauntingly beautiful.

And it is useful as well.

It is really the same piece of music repeated twice. That makes it serve as a small and slow etude, a study in voicing of first the right hand and then the left hand.

The piece also makes the player coordinate and strengthen the fourth and fifth fingers on the right hand, and execute wide 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 endless sixteenth notes — the stream that the word “Bach” means in German. What a fitting name for the composer whose flow of music was endless!

All in all, it is a great little miniature that deserves to be learned and performed more frequently. It has even been used by some major piano competition winners as a calming change-of-pace piece, a way to get into or out of the zone.

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

Alexander Siloti and Sergei Rachmaninov

First, here is the Bach original played by Glenn Gould:

And here is the live performance of Siloti’s reworking and transcription 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?

Other classical music you hear in movie theaters?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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.


Classical music: YOU MUST HEAR THIS – Chicago pianist Jorge Federico Osorio plays a piano transcription of J.S. Bach by Walter Rummel, whose transcriptions deserve a much wider hearing.

August 2, 2013
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

There is no point being a purist about transcriptions, especially in the Baroque era and Romantic eras.

All the great Baroque composers  — Antonio Vivaldi, Georg Philipp Telemann, George Frideric Handel and especially Johann Sebastian Bach (below) to name a few — borrowed from themselves and from other composers, and always felt free to rearrange the original for a different instrument or a special occasion.

Bach1

Like many piano fans, I know and have heard or even played a lot of Bach transcriptions for the modern piano, from Ferrucio Busoni’s wonderful version of chorale preludes to Alexander Siloti’s and Egon Petri’s version to Wilhelm Kempff and of course the famous version of “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” by Dame Myra Hess (below).

Portrait of Myra Hess, 1950s

But I had never heard of transcriptions of Walter Rummel -– even though the Hyperion label offer a series of Bach piano transcriptions with more than 10 volumes, including a 2-CD set of Walter Rummel’s transcriptions of movements from Bach’s cantatas.

Rummel (below, in 1944) lived from 1887 to 1953 and studied with the virtuosic performer and arranger Leopold Godowsky. Though of German background, he spent most of his career in France and was acclaimed for his playing especially of Debussy, and for his arrangements and transcriptions.

Walter Rummel in 1944

Anyway, I like what I heard and was quite taken with it, and hope you will be too. As with so many of these transcriptions, I suspect it sounds a lot easier to play than it really is.

Anyway, here it is, played by the Chicago pianist Jorge Federico Osorio (below) in a live performance captured by and posted in a YouTube video.

Jorge Federico Osorio

I cannot find a recording of this particular work – although Osorio has recorded three volumes of Mexican music, including the Piano Concerto by Carlos Chavez, for the outstanding  non-profit Cedille Records in Chicago — by Osorio on CD. But the acclaimed pianist Jonathan Plowright has recorded it for the Hyperion series.

What is your favorite piano transcription of Bach? And who plays it?

The Ear wants to hear.

In the mean time, here is the lovely and calmingly thoughtful performance by Jorge Federico Osorio. Tell me if it doesn’t want to make you hear more:


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