In an age when even big-name soloists are trying their hands at historical-performance techniques, it's worthwhile to splash water on one's face from time to time and revisit the era when Bach's music served many performers simply as a stimulus to further creative activity. The piano transcriptions of Bach's music on this two-disc set are by Walter Rummel, a British-American pianist and composer of the interwar era whose mother was the daughter of Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph. In the words of the excellent booklet notes by Charles Timbrell, he was "the personification of romanticism, a free-spirited individualist drawn constantly to the past, a dreamer always in pursuit of lofty ideals" -- which did not stop him from embracing fascism during World War II. His outlook was an extreme version of the Romantic religious impulse, and in a piece of writing quoted in the booklet he compares Bach's "chorales and arias to the rose windows of cathedrals, in which reflections continually change from brilliant major to somber minor." Never mind that the Lutheran Bach wouldn't have been especially pleased by the comparison! Technically, his piano transcriptions of Bach's music are in the league of Busoni's, with Bach's harmonies serving as structural frameworks for big extensions of pianistic space. Octave doublings and transpositions are rampant (Rummel is fond of moving blocks of Bach's music to the very top of the keyboard), and the pedals get a good workout. But what sets Rummel's transcriptions apart is that most of them (there are 25) are based not on keyboard works but on vocal pieces, mostly chorales and arias from cantatas. In attempting this feat, Rummel seems to have been motivated by specifically religious impulses. Boiling down orchestral textures to the keyboard gives Rummel the opportunity to create thick chords and big, Lisztian sounds. But in a way his biggest departure from Bach's spirit comes in lyrical arias like the "Esurientes implevit bonis" from the Magnificat, where Bach's lyricism is turned into a thoroughly Romantic piece of debilitated longing. Pianist Jonathan Plowright has taken a large body of unfamiliar and technically challenging music and mastered it beautifully. For some, Rummel's music will be the equivalent of scrawling on the Mona Lisa (sample CD 1, track 9 to find out whether you can take Rummel's booming, over-the-top version of "Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen," from the Cantata No. 12); for others it will be a revelation. Whichever position one may adopt, there's no denying that this disc (part of a series devoted to piano transcriptions of Bach) captures an important but almost forgotten chapter in the story of how Bach's music has come down to the present day.
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