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Dieterich BUXTEHUDE (c. 1637–1707)
Buxtehude by Arrangement – The Complete Piano Transcriptions by August Stradal
Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BuxWV153 (8:58)
Chaconne in E minor, BuxVW160 (6:55)
Prelude and Fugue in E minor, BuxWV143 (6:20)
Prelude and Fugue in E minor, BuxWV142 (9:48)
Passacaglia in D minor, BuxVW161 (9:01)
Prelude and Fugue in D minor, BuxVW140 (7:36)
Prelude and Fugue in G minor, BuxVW150 (8:59)
Chaconne in C minor, BuxVW159 (8:01)
Prelude and Fugue in F major, BuxWV145 (7:41)
Prelude and Fugue in F sharp minor, BuxVW146 (10:11)
Meilin Ai (piano)
rec. 2019, Winspear Performance Hall, Murchison Performing Arts Centre, University of North Texas, USA
All are first recordings.
TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC0534 [83:31]

I’ve been a fan of the transcriptions by August Stradal ever since I found, in my then local second-hand-music shop, a solo piano transcription of Liszt’s first symphonic poem, “Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne”.  It transpires that Stradal was well known in his day as a transcriber and arranger of works for solo piano – he arranged several of his teacher Bruckner’s symphonies for piano, the first twelve of Liszt’s symphonic poems (most of which are also recorded on Toccata Classics, by the excellent Risto Matti-Marin) and numerous other works by Liszt, Bach, Buxtehude and others as well.  Interestingly, the Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson has recently had his recording of the Andante of Stradal’s arrangement of Bach’s Sonata no. 4 in E minor BWV.528 for organ played on BBC radio 3.  It was wonderful!  As an aside, I should point out that I’m rather fond of the clarity and coolness of keyboard works from this time – there is a spaciousness to the writing which appeals to me.  Obviously, coupled with my interest in 19th century virtuosic piano music and my pre-existing interest in Stradal’s output, this sounded like an ideal combination for me to become acquainted with.

The disc begins with the transcription of a Prelude and Fugue in A minor which is not as simple in structure as the title makes out - it comprises of a Prelude, two fugues and a toccata.  The work itself is interesting, varied and full of contrast and the clarity of the playing is excellent.  The finale is especially virtuosic but the difficulty is not at the expense of the music, it is all about recreating the effect of the re-arranging what was originally meant for the organ which Stradal achieves magnificently.

The following E minor Chaconne is a single movement work, again with some lovely phrasing and detail present – as before, there is a clarity and precision to the playing here which is just splendid.  This was also originally and organ work but you would not know that listening to this masterly transcription.  Around three and a half minutes in, the whole piece grinds to a halt and becomes increasingly restrained and quiet before speeding up again in varying differing combinations and permutations to provide a more complex conclusion.  The ending comes as a surprise as it is quiet and restrained.

Tracks 6 – 8 are taken up with another multipartite Prelude and Fugue, this time subdivided up into a Prelude, Fugue, 2 other fugues and an Adagio and all taking only 6’20’’ to play.  This work is extremely like Bach, especially in the Prelude part, however, as it progresses, its tone becomes increasingly modern-sounding, strange for something written the best part of 400 years ago. The following fugue is a generally sunny piece but with sinister mumbling in the bass, derived from the opening prelude.  I really like the way fugue 1 starts up, it just grows organically from the ashes of the preceding Fugue but the transition is so smart that you don’t even notice – a testament to the musicality of the pianist.  The second fugue (track 8) is a much craggier affair, very short and powerful and ending very strangely indeed.  This is all clever stuff!

The next set is even more complex. There are four fugues here, one leading from the prelude and the rest tracked independently on the disc.  The opening part of the piece is very short indeed before embarking on a happy major key fugue which is full of interesting finger-twisting for the pianist – these are not easy to play. The overall atmosphere of this little work, despite the minor key, is one of joy and it becomes increasingly happy and powerful as it progresses.  Some of the harmonies are amazingly modern and this modernity continues into the Fugue 2 (track 11) which is longer and complex in nature before it leads into the final fugue – the longest part of the work.  This is much less like Bach in nature and meanders around gently; the playing is beautifully phrased and evocative.  There is a suspension of time here until about one minute in, when the “tick-tock” tune starts up which underpins the remainder of the work.  This occurs in numerous registers across the keyboard and is cleverly modified and manipulated into the very interesting piece which winds down to a quiet conclusion like a clock running out of winding.  I think this is probably my favourite track on the disc; it is utterly marvellous.

The following Passacaglia is in D minor, is the longest single track on the disc and is much more austere than the preceding Fugue.  It is played in a very cool and detached manner which suits this repertoire well.  The opening before the statement of the theme which underpins the work, is spacious and rather foreboding.  Once the “variations” start, the pace picks up a little and the atmosphere becomes more cheerful.  To my ears, there is even a little hint of “God Save the Queen” hidden there but I think it has more to do with the key changes and progressions than any direct quotation of that piece.  The piece gains in volume and power and there is some incredibly loud and affirmative music about five and a half minutes in which really sticks in the ears.  The differing levels of structure on the keyboard really do stand out here but everything is really well delineated so no details are lost.  After the loud outburst in the middle, things quieten down for a short while before some very complex writing begins with some conspicuous octave leaps between the hands.  All this is handled superlatively.  The last half minute comprises of a very powerful statement of the main theme with lots of arpeggiated octaves creating an incredibly breath-taking and craggy effect.

There then follows the Prelude and Fugue in D minor, BuxWV140 which again has three fugues, each highlighting a different technical aspect to playing the organ.  The prelude is very short but leads into a bright first fugue with lots of bouncing finger work for the pianist.  After about a minute and a half, the work comes to a complete stop before resuming the piece in a completely different manner.  The contrast is quite a surprise on the first hearing but with repeated listening, it makes more sense.  The second fugue is different again, more connected to the middle subject of the proceeding fugue than being a separate piece.  There is a fair bit of augmentation of note values and structural alterations going on in this work (and elsewhere) creating a rather magnificent little work.  The work grows in stature and power, stops dead and then starts up again leading to a loud and positive conclusion.

Another multipart fugue follows – this one has four fugues, one after the very short prelude and three separated from that.  The prelude is very searching in nature; it meanders around not really settling onto anything before the fugues take over.  The first two of these are very strictly written out and contain trills and lots of clever tricks.  I get the impression this is perhaps a later work than some of the other pieces on the disc as the techniques are different (although some of these additions may have been by Stradal when he transcribed them).  The first fugue is especially cheerful with the right hand singing over the top of the left hand whereas in the second one, the left hand seems to take over and underpin things more noticeably.  There is again some very powerful writing here which is cut short by the transition into the third and final fugue which (according to the notes) combines differing subjects over a figured base.  This is a fascinating piece full of surprises and more cunning tricks to listen out for.  The answering phrases to the main theme crop up all over the place in varying degrees of disguise and the sheer ingenuity of the music is incredible; coupled with the ultra-precise playing, the effect is mesmerising.  It has taken several intense listenings to get my head around this superb work.

Track 21 is a Chaconne in C minor, starting peacefully and rather sadly but slowing gaining in power and confidence.  As with the earlier Chaconne (track 2), the work develops as it progresses, however, it is far sunnier in outlook.  After the slightly sad introduction, the whole tone of the piece changes, so from about 1’30’’ onwards we have a rather jovial little tune wandering around and being varied.  There are many passages of parallel thirds here and some lovely intonation as the fragments of theme are moved about and mutated as the piece continues.   The sunny disposition doesn’t continue; there are moments of reflective calm and also of sadness and at around 4’40’’ a very angry- sounding passage which somehow cleverly settles down.  This is another complex and interesting work which really takes several listenings to understand and I suspect I shall have to keep trying to understand it fully.  The last two minutes of the work contain insistent passages of octaves alternated with more detailed finger work for the right hand which are very well played and phrased.  The ending of the piece is another example of a predominantly minor key piece ending in a major key using a Picardy third and it is quite a surprise.

There then follows a short Prelude and Fugue in F major, the only piece on the whole disc in a major ley and with no extra fugues are included.  This is a perfect little creation – the prelude is lovely and pastoral in nature and leads into a powerfully jolly conclusion before the fugue begins.  This has a funny, bouncy beginning and each answering phrase, complete with mordents and all sorts of fun decoration around the notes, makes for a marvellous work.  I would describe the overall feeling as like a chorus of birds singing to one another across a meadow.  This is one of those works which you don’t actually want to end, as it is perfect.  That ending, when it does happen, is a complete surprise.

The last piece on this disc is again more complex in nature comprising of a Prelude, two Fugues and a Toccata – perhaps heading towards the sort of thing that Bach wrote and similar in structure to the opening work on this disc.  The opening phrase is very modern-sounding indeed before it morphs into a more chronologically appropriate tune around thirty seconds in.  This is strange, too, though, as it seems to be striving for something before being stamped on firmly at the end before being allowed to develop further.  There is then a really weird passage marked as a fugue (again) in the notes but not actually being very fugal.  It’s more like a procession of a tune with minor fugal elements however this does lead into a fugue proper (track 25) which is more conventional, if rather solemn-sounding.  There is plenty for the pianist to do here, as the music unfurls along its almost four and a half minutes playing time.  There is an almost pleading tone to the second subject as it starts and more memorable themes are presented – be prepared for more earworms to take up residence in your brain!  The last minute of this fugue is strange; it draws to a full close before setting off in an entirely unexpected direction and is more peaceful in character and exquisitely played.  The concluding part of the work is an initially quite slow Toccata that gradually develops in complexity, volume and speed.  It is also extremely difficult, with lots of work for the pianist who, as throughout this disc, plays it splendidly.

Overall, this is an utterly magnificent disc; the cover notes are extremely detailed and provide a vast amount of information, especially about Stradal and the disc is enormously generously filled (at 83 and a half minutes).  It is splendidly recorded; the presentation is up to Toccata’s usual high standards and the production values are high.  Most importantly, the playing throughout is superb; the clarity of lines, pedalling and sheer musicality of Ms Ai are wonderful.  There is so much going on, it’s hard to believe there is only the one pianist here, which is something that I have also noticed in Stradal’s other transcriptions, I think it has to do with his using the whole of the keyboard rather than concentrating on the more central part.  I have no hesitation in recommending this disc and I hope that there are further Stradal transcriptions which Toccata and Ms Ai will record in the future.  This is a disc that I look forward to returning to again and again, as there are many things of interest and discoveries to me made.  Full marks to Toccata again!

Jonathan Welsh



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