Tears from Babylon

J. S. Bach: Piano Transcriptions
Alexandra Papastefanou
FHR 141

This is an unlikely CD to come my way, and I would not normally think myself qualified to make any comment on the style and performance of such an unashamedly pianistic collection. But Alexandra Papastefanou is a celebrated Greek pianist and takes her jumping off point from the well-known and popular transcription by Dame Myra Hess of the cantata movement from BWV 147 known as ‘Jesu, joy of man’s desiring’, with which this CD ends.

But Papastefanou’s skill is shown by the opening two tracks – transcriptions of the first two movements of the Trio Sonata for organ BWV 529 – in which she demonstrates not only her technique as a performer, but also as an arranger. The majority of her CD is given to arrangements of cantata movements, but there are also versions of the chorale preludes BWV 711 and 653. BVW comes off well where the instrumental obligato part dovetails with the alto vocal line in a way that is reminiscent of Bach’s own arrangement of BWV 6.iii as the fifth of the Schübler Chorales for organ. It was nice to hear a version of the Chorale in BWV 22.iv that formed another of the older favourite transcriptions along with ‘Jesu, joy of man’s desiring’ that sat on my childhood piano.

If you like piano transcriptions of Bach’s music – and many listeners to Radio 3’s ‘Bach before Seven’ seem to – then you will enjoy this collection.

David Stancliffe


Mozart & Beethoven [keyboard music]

Thomas Leininger fortepiano
Talbot Records TR1901
K331, 332, 397; Sonata in F, op 2/1

Depending on your point of view, this may be ‘a breath of fresh air’, ‘wilful distortion of the music’ or a bit of both. The programme begins with a reasonably orthodox performance of Mozart’s D minor fantasia K397. Thereafter each of the three well-known sonatas is prefaced by an improvisatory prelude based on ideas and suggestions taken from Clementi and Czerny, and this improvisatory style is carried into the sonatas themselves, with much and sometimes quite extreme variation of tempo; ornamentation; mini-cadenzas; dis-location between the hands; and far more use of the moderator lever than any other player I have heard.

As far as I am concerned this last feature is especially welcome – I’ve often wondered why players, both ‘modern’ and HIP, don’t do it more.* What I do query is the inclusion on a recording of the preludes. Of their very nature these are transitory and ephemeral but the ‘document’ nature of a CD seems to accord them a quasi-canonic status that they don’t really have. But this could also be said of ornaments, of course. Of the other distinctive features of the playing I found the tempo variation the most disturbing and the least convincing: sometimes the effect was comparable to a beginner’s speeding up in the easy passages and slowing down when the going gets tougher. But the additional ornaments are more than welcome.

The booklet (in English and German) says nothing about the music itself – perhaps it is regarded as too familiar to need it. And I do think you should hear this recital: it does question ‘standard practice’ and that’s to be applauded.

David Hansell

*Sir Andras Schiff is a notable exception. At a recital I attended he was positively dancing over all three of his Steinway’s pedals – though not when he was playing Bach!

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