We can’t, of course, know how Bach would have reacted to the sound of his music rendered with a Steinway piano or a Philadelphia Orchestra, though he reportedly didn’t care for an early Cristofori piano that was presented for his inspection sometime in the 1730s. But the notion that he would have objected in principle to transcriptions of his works is, to my way of thinking, nonsense. Transcription was an essential element of the compositional practice of Bach and his contemporaries; witness Bach’s organ arrangements of Vivaldi, and the copious cross-traffic between his harpsichord and violin concertos, masses, and cantatas, and so forth. Ergo, later transcriptions of Bach are at least entitled to an unbiased hearing on their own merits.Read more Enough said.
It would be particularly unfortunate for this unique two-disc release to be dismissed on such misguided grounds. The first CD offers three sets of variations on Bachian and Bach-related themes; the second, a generous selection of transcribed chorale preludes and similar works. Liszt’s piano transcriptions of Bach’s major organ preludes and fugues have previously been recorded by Artur Pizarro (Collins) and Michel Block (O.M.)—both releases now, apparently, deleted. And there are a couple of other recordings of the Reger variations, which are just as expansive and imaginative as one would expect from acquaintance with the composer’s similar efforts on themes of, e.g., Mozart and Telemann. But most of the works recorded here appear to be available nowhere else, notably a group of eight transcriptions by Oppitz’s mentor and sometime teacher Wilhelm Kempff. Thus, this release is a most welcome addition to the catalog simply on repertoire grounds, if nothing else. In fact, there is much else.
If one allows an analogy between musical transcription and the translation of verbal language, these performances are very much idiomatic translations as opposed to literal ones. Oppitz has no compunctions whatever about exploiting the resources, both of the piano itself and of post-Bach performance practice, to shape his renditions with judicious rubato and grand dynamic climaxes. At the same time, there’s no sacrifice at all of the textural clarity this repertoire so often demands. Listen, for example, to the densely interwoven voices of the Bach/Kempff “Wachet auf”; you won’t believe all this is being done with only ten fingers.
Nor is anything left wanting in the presentation of this tasty musical repast: Unexceptionable sound quality; a space-saving double-gatefold jewel box; generous and informative annotation by Ingo Harden and Oppitz himself. You’ve read this far; buy these discs.