Pavane ADW 7255
Pavane ADW 7255

CD Reviews: J.S. Bach Chaconne transcription

"Five Great Chaconnes" - piano transcriptions by Brahms, Busoni, Liszt & Raff of music by J.S.Bach and Handel.

Walid Akl, piano
Pavane ADW 7255 1991 DDD 74:54

Bach's magisterial Chaconne for violin (from the Partita No.2) is one of his towering achievements and it held a particular fascination for 19th. century composers. As in a music theory examination, this CD invites us to "compare and contrast" three piano transcriptions of it by masters of the romantic era - Brahms, Busoni and Raff - programmed one after the other. It makes fascinating, but rather daunting listening.

Lebanese pianist Walid Akl begins with Liszt's romantic, but surprisingly sober and reserved, transcriptions of the solemn Sarabande and the short, and rather slight Chaconne from Handel's opera "Almira". The serious mood is lightened by Handel's un-transcribed and quite substantial Chaconne and 21 Variations which follows. In both Handel works Akl adopts a "baroque" pianism which does seem rather dry and mechanical, although he isn't helped by a shallow recording acoustic and a piano tone which lacks warmth.

The remaining 48 minutes consists of the three Bach Chaconne transcriptions in chronological order - Raff, Brahms and Busoni. All the qualities of Raff's orchestral transcription (recently so ably demonstrated on CD by Leonard Slatkin and the BBC Philharmonic - Chandos CHAN 9835) are present in his piano version.

The grandeur of Bach's conception is never masked but Raff's transcription is emphatically romantic - the ruminative opening passage reeks of tortured introspection before being swept away in the first dramatic surge of the music. Drama is indeed the essence of Raff's transcription. There are huge variations in texture as Raff weaves counter melodies in contrapuntal contrast - all well captured by Akl, who clearly revels in the virtuoso opportunities offered by Raff. This is a good performance of a masterly work.

Listen to an audio extract This excerpt is the opening of the Raff transcription[1:38]

The contrast with the Brahms version is very telling. It is a spare piece and the most literal of the three transcriptions - Brahms deliberately wrote it for the left hand alone in order to better duplicate the restrictions of the violin. At almost 17 minutes, it is 90 seconds longer than the gloriously romantic Raff and in it Akl returns to the baroque style of playing which characterised his Handel works. Zolotarev in his new rival performance is better here (Ars FCD 368 388).

With Busoni, late romanticism appears. It is clear - and indeed acknowledged in the CD's insert notes - that Busoni was indebted to Raff for providing him with the basis for his own transcription, which is much less restrained than Brahms' and more extrovert than Raff's. It is dramatic without being too showy and still remains true to Bach, although perhaps rather more distantly than its two predecessors. As with the Raff, Akl is well up to the technical demands of the work and plays with romantic passion.

Technically, the sound is rather hard and has little depth. Akl's deliberately contrasted playing styles between the baroque Brahms and Handel and the romantic Busoni and Raff pieces is appropriate, but overdone. The programming is intriguing, but not very practical. Whilst the Brahms is indeed like a sharp sorbet between two rich courses, the meal itself is still too rich and unvaried. A CD to sample selectively, then, and at its most successful in the Busoni and the Raff.

Mark Thomas

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