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Transcriptions in general—and of Bach’s works or by Bach in particular—are a favorite topic of mine, and I collect recordings that suit that topic in a special box. The pile is ever growing; Marimba versions of the Cello Suites and Goldberg variations variously for harp, accordion, or various saxophone conglomerations abound. My favorite release of 2009—the Goldberg Variations in the Rheinberger-Reger arrangement—belonged to the category as well and this year’s Bach-transcription choice with Evgeni Koroliov and his wife continues very neatly in that line: Adaptations and arrangements for piano duo (and solo piano) by romantic composers (Liszt, Prelude & Fugue in A minor BWV 543), by Bach via-performer (the “Organ Mass” a.k.a. Clavierübung III, which are arrangements of chorales for organ performed on the piano), by the performer (Passacaglia for two pianos), and most delightfully of them all: various organ pieces by György Kurtág for two pianos on the audiophile Tacet label.

Taking Bach’s work from the organ to the modern grand piano is perhaps the most ‘natural’ among all the transcriptive steps, despite the fact that they’re based on two as-different-as-can-be ways of producing sound. With all the differences from one organ to another, and considering the piano’s ability to create a great variety of tonal colors (further increased when two pianos are aat work), the piano is really an organ by other means. If the organ is the king of instruments (although I’ve always thought of it, for all its pipes, as more or a resplendent queen or something gender-unspecific), the grand piano is the prince (and workhorse).

Leaving the ‘what’, ‘why’, and ‘how’ of transcribing and transcriptions aside for the time being, this disc is an absolute marvel. The work of the creative agents isn’t in this case the equal of their lowest common denominator (which would still be lofty, given the musicians involved), but achieves something as wonderful as—and just-slightly, wonderfully different than—the Bach original.

The Passacaglia, so dear to my heart, is oft transcribed and very happily so for two pianos, a version where I feel it can achieve its greatness almost more easily than in an average organ performance. Instigated by Busoni (who never made his own transcription of it), Bösendorfer even designed its Imperial Grand Piano to accommodate Bach’s writing for the grand organ sound of the Passacaglia. Koroliov’s idiomatic transcription is one of several two-piano arrangements (most famous of them probably Max Reger’s). Whether it is Koroliov and Ljupka Hadžigeorgieva’s playing or the transcription (or both) that makes the textures sound occasionally leaner than I am used to from the Reger versions is hard to tell; easy to tell is the propulsive-compelling excellence of the performance, though. Ditto the Liszt and Clavierübung III. Koroliov’s Ricercar a 6 from “The Musical Offering” (a transcription-favorite of mine in Webern’s brilliant orchestrated version) is a superb lead-in for the six Kurtág transcriptions that are such things of beauty that they bring metaphorical, sometimes literal, tears to my eyes.

The two and a half minutes of the Sonatina from the Actus Tragicus alone are invaluable, just for the beauty of the piece itself. But if you listen closer, also for how Kurtág teases out the interplay of the voices that, in the original, are made up of two recorders, violas, and da gambas. Elsewhere he emulates overtones by doubling the melody a twelfth above in pppp. Everywhere he exudes musical intelligence and humble passion for the great master’s music.

Jens F. Laurson

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