Wednesday, 4 December 2019

J.S. Bach Wachet Auf: Some Arrangements and Transcriptions.


Following on from my (unoriginal) notes about the ubiquitous Advent chorale prelude ‘Wachet Auf’ BWV 645 for organ, I thought I would briefly mention three further arrangements of this delightful piece.

The greatest transcription of all is by Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924). It is the second number in his superb collection of Ten Chorale Preludes BV V.27. They were completed in 1898. In ‘Wachet Auf’, Busoni retains much of Bach’s original phrasing, melodic contours and harmonic structures. It is a pleasing untroubled arrangement that suggest ‘fields of gold’ rather than one of Our Lord’s Parables, which is basis of Bach’s original. It is more Theocritus than St Matthew.  A good version of Busoni’s take on ‘Wachet Auf’ can be heard on YouTube. This is the great pianist Solomon’s 1948 recording, made at the Abbey Road Studios.

One of the delights of English musical endeavour is A Bach Book for Harriet Cohen. This is an important, if flawed, collection of 12 transcriptions of JSB made by the great and good of British Music. It was compiled at the behest of the acclaimed pianist Harriet Cohen. It includes pieces by Arnold Bax, Herbert Howells, Constant Lambert, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Granville Bantock. The resulting volume was published in 1932 and was premiered by Cohen in the same year. 
The presentation of the album is in alphabetical order, so the first number is by the eldest composer contributing to this collection: Sir Granville Bantock. He has given a characteristic arrangement of ‘Wachet auf, ruft uns die stimme.’ This is derived from the Schübler Chorale Prelude rather than the Cantata No.40. Composer Ronald Stevenson has criticised this ‘less than satisfactory’ arrangement, most especially the ‘grace notes’ providing the bass harmony at the first appearance of the cantus/tune. (This is defined as a note of minute duration immediately resolved on the note above or below. It is also called an Acciaccatura which is Italian for ‘crushing.’) This is represented below by the small notes in the left hand. 

Despite this criticism by Ronald Stevenson and others, I love Bantock’s arrangement of this Chorale. It is idyllic and quite restrained in its performance and creates a numinous mood that has little to do with the liturgical setting of the original cantata.
There appears to be no uploaded version of Bantock’s transcription. However, it can be heard on Hyperion, CDA67767 performed by Jonathan Plowright. This CD includes a recording of the complete A Bach Book for Harriet Cohen.

Clearly, ‘Wachet Auf’ must have inspired Bantock as he made another arrangement in 1945. This was probably a commission, made to help with the composer’s finances. At this time Bantock’s music had passed into the doldrums. Arranged for small orchestra, the melody is taken by the French horns with the ‘obligato’ played by the wind and strings. This can be heard on YouTube. It is taken from Capella Istropolitana’s survey of J.S. Bach’s orchestral music issued in Naxos 8.550244 issued in 1990.

1 comment:

Nick said...

"This is an important, if flawed, collection".... a contentious statement..... how so!?