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CD Review

Johann Sebastian Bach

Transcriptions by Respighi And Elgar

  • Tre Corali (Three Chorale Preludes)
  • Sonata in E minor, BWV 1023 *
  • Prelude & Fugue in D Major, BWV 532
  • Passacaglia & Fugue in C minor, BWV 582
  • Fantasia & Fugue in C minor, BWV 537
* Ilkka Talvi, violin
Seattle Symphony Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz
Naxos 8.572741
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This is a really interesting disc. Naxos had had some very good luck with Bach transcriptions over the years, but this was originally a Delos release that must have simply gotten overlooked. Here it is again, over 20 years later, and it still sounds great. Respighi was a great colorist, and the vibrancy and flair of his tone poems is here as well. As for Elgar, he's usually seen as a stodgy old Edwardian, but he's really not for the most part, and his own work as tribute to Bach also proves to be excellent.

The Seattle Symphony worked for 26 years under Gerard Schwarz, and they have always impressed me for being remarkably consistent as a group. They don't have the signature sound that Chicago or Boston has (had, sometimes has?) but they play well in nearly everything. Schwarz is a typical conductor in that not everything he does goes platinum, but he does tend to surprise collectors every now and then with something really good. This is a prime example. During this time period, he and the orchestra were either recording every scrap of Americana, or works that everyone else did arguably better. And then came this, which fits neither category even today. And the best thing about this orchestra is that you never once have to pick up the box and go "Is this a reissue?" The ensemble was great then, and is great now, with both Delos and Naxos providing fine sound. Besides, they now operate under the same umbrella, and even the orchestra's independent efforts are Naxos-distributed. So everybody wins.

You win too, as a listener. The genius of Bach speaks for itself, and nobody has to question if these works are any good. These pieces were originally organ works, for the most part, and even if you hate Bach or the organ, it's hard to deny the genius at hand. However, if you hate Bach transcriptions, be forewarned that this disc will not change your mind. Respighi certainly sounds different than Stokowski, but is probably no less offensive to Bach purists. If anything, Respighi is worse. Stokowski was an organist, and basically just gave wind and string parts to the string and wind stops on the instrument. Respighi goes a little farther, especially in the Passacaglia and Fugue, which is wild and a ton of fun.

As previously mentioned, Elgar takes a lot of heat for being too English sounding, and he's really not my cup of tea most days. But his Fantasia and Fugue transcription is as loving a tribute as you could possibly hope for. The string textures are befitting an English string serenade; heart on sleeve, creamy sounds that make Bach sound…like Elgar. You'll either love it to death or condemn it to the depths of Hades. There's absolutely no question that Elgar understands this music at the most basic level, and if his aim was to point out the sheer beauty of Bach, we must count this as a success. Throughout the program, the Seattle Symphony sounds like it is simply having a good time – essential in this kind of music – and Schwarz directs commandingly. A niche album, perhaps, but a most enjoyable one at that!

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman