Bach, re-imagined

From Mahler to Stokowski, everyone’s had a go at transcribing Bach. It’s an art form in itself which, writes Andrew Farach-Colton, will be celebrated in a special Proms that conductor Andrew Litton promises will be ’a blast’

In its common usage, the meaning of the word “transcription” is relatively unambiguous. It denotes a literal conversion from one format to another — say, from the spoken word to the written word. As a musical term, though, the meaning is considerably less clear.

In our culture, for which authenticity is such a highly valued commodity, the transcription is likely viewed as slightly suspect (unless, of course, it’s a mere matter of Bach transcribing himself). We want the originals of everything, from Bach on period instruments to the mono masters of Beatles records. It it’s out of fashion for orchestras of modern instruments to play Bach (and, sadly, it is extremely unhip these days), then surely the lush, romanticized “transformations” of Leopold Stokowski and others must be really impossibly passé (and likely déclassé to boot)? It’s a pity, really, for not only are many of the transcriptions first rate but they also allow an orchestra to sink its teeth into Bach without defying the zeitgeist. Indeed, the beauty of the transcription is that (at its best) it opens two windows simultaneously: one into the world of the composer and one into the world of the transcriber.

This (sometimes dizzying) dual perspective will be on exhibit at the conclusion of Bach Day at the Proms on August 14, when Andrew Litton and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra present a programme of 20th- and 21st-century Bach transcriptions. Indeed, Litton says he was somewhat surprised by the invitation. “When Roger Wright of the BBC came to me with this idea, I was intrigued because I’m known for conducting music from 1850 to the present. It’s not that I don’t think Back is one of the greatest geniuses to ever grace our planet; it’s just not my specialty, and there are so many people for whom it is. And, in fact, John Eliot Gardiner is opening Bach Day at Cadogan Hall doing all the Brandenburg Concertos. But when it was explained to me that the afternoon will include performances of some original versions — mostly organ pieces — at an Albert Hall recital, before we came out and do these glorious, extremely romantic transcriptions, I suddenly calmed down. I also realized that anybody who’s able to steer a large orchestra can do this repertoire, because any relationship between the original and what we’re playing is, in a way, purely coincidental. He laughs as he says this, but it’s a gleeful giggle. “I think it’s going to be a blast!”

The programme opens with Stokowski’s version of the Toccata and Fugue in D minor. “Maybe it has the same number of notes as the organ original, but it’s a crazy piece — not like the organ at all. Closer to the performance date, I’m going to revisit Stokowski’s own recordings of the piece.” Litton confesses to being an avid record collector who still has more than 6000 LPs at home. “I’d consider it a crowning achievement if I can possibly get close to Stoki’s elasticity. There’s one version where he makes it sound like the soundtrack to Jaws (though, of course, the recording predates the film).” He proceeds to sing the passage, wide-eyed and with appropriate menace, then bursts into a broad grin. “It’s absolutely hysterical — and wonderful.”

Litton had wanted to put Mahler’s version of Bach’s Third Orchestral Suite on the concert, especially since 2010 marks the 150th anniversary of Mahler’s birth. But Wright persuaded him to take a different direction, focusing on transcriptions by composers and conductors who had a relationship with the proms. ’This made sense to me because it’s such a wide-open field — composers have been transcribing Bach’s music fir more than two centuries. Where to draw the line? How do you create a coherent programme?” The one piece that falls completely outside the Prom’s historic perimeter is the closing section: Respighi’s adaptation of the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor. “I kind of insisted on it.” The conductor admits. “I’ve always wanted to do it because it’s so over-the-top — the orchestral sounds are amazing. It was written just six years after The Pines of Rome, after all.”

Litton grabs his briefcase and pulls out some scores recently sent to him by the BBC. One is a series of transcriptions assembled by Sir Henry Wood as the Orchestral Suite No 6. Litton points out Wood’s signature inked to the score’s cover. “Then when you open it — who signed it out of the BBC’s library? Sir Henry Wood himself. Three times. And he’s the only one who ever did. So, this is the original score.”

Next, Litton thumbs through Grainger’s Blithe Bells. “I’ve played some of Grainger’s ’rambles’ for piano. This is a ’ramble’ for orchestra on Sheep May Safely Graze — though Grainger calls it Sheep May Graze in Safety. I love that. It’s hilarious. But even funnier is his description of the orchestration: there are ’Needful Instruments’ and ’ad libitum instruments’ (OK, that’s fair enough), and directions for using a small orchestra or ’massed’ orchestra. He calls this ’elastic scoring’. And what exactly is he talking about here? Well, it’s insane, as you would expect from Percy Grainger. There’s piano four-hands, celesta or dulcitone, wooden marimba and metal marimba, harmonium or pipe organ, and saxophone. And what are they all playing?” Litton sweetly sings the famous melody. “So, I’m in heaven. This is the kind of project that’s heaven-sent. This will not be boring!”

Litton is also delighted to be presenting two brand-new transcriptions at the Proms. “I thought it would be a good idea to have a contemporary view as well. And since, aside from the Respighi, we’ve kept the programme almost entirely British, we’ve invited two young British composers to contribute. Actually, Alissa Firsova is from Russia originally, but she moved to the UK when she was five. And Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme. “It’s a brilliant hodgepodge,” says Litton. “In a way, it’s a sort of history lesson on composers’ and conductors’ ongoing obsession with Bach’s music.”

Hear Andrew Litton conduct 20th- and 21st-century Bach transcriptions at Prom 39: Saturday, August 14, 7:30 pm.

Originally printed in the July 2010 issue of Gramophone.
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