Two different takes on Bach: Busoni vs Brahms

Anthologies tend to be a mixed bag. I’m quite partial to a Schirmer collection of 26 Bach piano transcriptions by an assortment of great composers.schimer

It has its strengths and weaknesses. I am not particularly inspired by what Saint-Saëns did with the Gavotte from Violin Sonata #2, and I don’t bother with the Rachmaninoff Prelude to the violin Partita in E: that is, not when I have the three movements of the Partita in a wonderful Rachmaninoff book of transcriptions, also including his lovely paraphrase of Schubert’s “Wohin” and the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummernight’s Dream.

This Bach transcription anthology includes some very different approaches, perhaps best understood in the divergent personalities of the five key composers in the book:

  • Franz Liszt, usually big and powerful in the version of Bach that he’s channeling
  • Ferruccio Busoni, even bigger and more powerful than Liszt, and roughly half a century later, in a ferociously virtuosic re-invention of Bach
  • Harold Bauer & Wilhelm Kempff, understated in their careful replicas of the original. I find these most impressive in the famous tunes such as “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” (Kempff) or “Komm süsser Tod” (Bauer).
  • Johannes Brahms, who is somewhere in the middle, between the extravagant flamboyance of Liszt & Busoni on the one hand, and the Lutheran economy found in the transcriptions of Kempff & Bauer.

Busoni had always been my favourite in this book, both in the challenges he makes to any pianist, and in the sounds one hears coming out of the piano. And yet I am re-thinking one particular transcription, after a book I read yesterday.


Pianist, teacher and conductor Leon Fleisher

I was completely absorbed with Leon Fleisher’s 2010 book My Nine Lives over the past weekend. Knowing the central drama of Fleisher’s adult life – his loss of movement in his right hand (plus his eventual recovery & rehabilitation) and its impact on both his pianism and his pedagogy—I should have expected to bump into one particular composition. The Schirmer Collected Transcriptions offers a few juxtapositions when there are two different versions of a well-known piece.

Best among these –and representing a mind-boggling divergence of approach—are the two different approaches to the D minor Chaconne from Bach’s Sonata for Violin No 4. Busoni has been my hero from the first moment I brought this book home. The first piece I devoured was Busoni’s massive paraphrase of the St Anne Prelude and Fugue, perhaps because it’s the most impressive organ piece I know. Busoni manages to orchestrate his piece to sound larger than life, or at least, larger than just a piano. That’s what i always loved in a piano piece, whether in a loud piano sonata such as Beethoven’s big sonatas such as the Waldstein or Hammerklavier, or in Liszt’s B Minor Sonata. They push any piano–and pianist– to the limit, the way a good orchestral composition challenges a stereo system.

Similarly, Busoni takes a piece for solo violin –the aforementioned Chaconne—and makes it sound like something Stokowski would be conducting with a full orchestra. I’m not saying I play it perfectly. But it’s an invitation to make your piano sound massive, and even when you play softly –as you often do in this big long piece—that too has gravitas and weight.

I think the other version went over my head when I first saw it. It’s Johannes Brahms, arranged for the left hand, and doing something completely different from anything Busoni did.  I’d like to think Busoni could respect this composition, but he’d never write with such economy or self-effacement.  For the longest time, I never gave the Brahms a second thought, only noticing it as a kind of witty tour de force, both for the tightness of Brahms’s paraphrase of the Bach piece, but also requiring brilliant technique in the execution.

In time I found that I started to play the two in succession, impressed in spite of myself with Brahms’ refusal to be a show-off, as a kind of point-counterpoint exercise (except Busoni never did say “Johannes you ignorant slut” or the Italian equivalant).

Reading Fleisher, however, has given me an entirely different perspective.  I’m embarrassed that I never really connected with him as a disabled artist even as a person who has had my own issues with disability.  I blush at the thought, but maybe i was thrown off because my first impression was simply that Fleisher was one of the most impressive players I’d ever heard. And he never let his infirmity beat him, seguing into several other careers – other lives as the book suggests—without being stifled or silenced. In looking now at the Brahms, I am so much clearer about this, and honestly, ashamed that I didn’t fully grasp the horror of what this artist was going through.

When you play the Brahms with one hand, and follow it with the Busoni, it’s a bit of a critique, if not an actual mirror being held up. I’m not sure, as I look at my response, if it’s entirely flattering. My whole strategy in playing operas or paraphrases on the piano since I was a child was to reproduce an orchestra, both in colours and especially in the sense of breadth. I think I was disappointed listening to some transcriptions –for example Glenn Gould’s take on the Siegfried Idyll of Wagner – that made something genuinely pianistic rather than trying to imitate an orchestra.

The best commentary – and censure of my own views, I suppose—is in Fleisher’s lovely description of the Brahms.

“Probably the single greatest work for solo left hand is by Brahms, who was looking for a way to capture the sparseness, in a piano transcription, of the unaccompanied violin line of Bach’s wondrous D minor Chaconne. Writing for only one hand allowed Brahms both to echo the limitations of the solo instrument and the ways that Bach miraculously transcends them. Brahms wrote the piece for Clara Schumann, who particularly adored the Bach Chaconne, and who happened to be sidelined, at the time, with right-handed tendinitis. (Fleisher 247)”

I’ve heard of Europeans who claimed that Shakespeare in translation (whether French or German) was superior to the original. While I laughed at this, I can’t deny that I far prefer Bach’s Partita in Rachmaninoff’s transcription to the original: echoing the philistinism I mock in the previous sentence.  And ditto in my love for Busoni’s Chaconne, although i am developing more and more admiration for what Brahms did.

Do I lack taste? All I can say in my own defense is Chaconne a son gout.

I close with a performance of the Busoni version.

This entry was posted in Music and musicology, Personal ruminations & essays, Psychology and perception. Bookmark the permalink.

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