So here’s something very different, and yet which seems so very comfortingly familiar…
The question of whether or not J.S. Bach’s harpsichord works translate well to the modern piano has led to recurring discussion and debate throughout my lifetime in piano education, so I was intrigued to hear about New York-based pianist Eleonor Bindman’s latest project: the transcription, performance and recording of Bach’s Six Cello Suites for solo piano.
Bindman’s recordings have recently become available as a 2CD set from the Grand Piano label:
As Bindman points out in her fascinating CD booklet essay, Bach himself regularly transcribed his works originally intended for one instrument so that they could be performed on another, as well as making arrangements of the music of other composers.
And indeed, this was a standard practice in the Baroque era. And not only then: Bach’s music in particular has of course been the subject of many excellent transcriptions over the last three centuries.
Listening to Bindman’s recording, I was immediately struck by the mellifluous beauty and sensitivity of her renditions of these iconic cello works; that she has transcribed them so well and plays them with such assurance, grace and finesse makes this 2CD set an easy choice for my Recording of the Month…
“Cello Suites for solo piano”
The exact provenance of Bach’s six cello suites BWV 1007-12 remains something of a mystery. It is generally agreed that they date from his period serving as Kapellmeister in Köthen between 1717-23, and it has been suggested by scholars that they predate the six solo violin partitas, which appeared in 1720.
In common with Bach’s keyboard Partitas and the English Suites, each of the Cello Suites has six movements following a standardised formula of dance movements:
- Other dance (Menuets, Bourrées, Gavottes)
The Cello Suites have long been among the most popular works for that instrument, creating much interest in transcriptions for other instruments. Bach himself transcribed the fifth suite for the lute, BWV 995.
Over the years others have transcribed them for solo violin, viola, double bass, viola da gamba, mandolin, marimba, classical guitar, recorder, flute, electric bass, horn, saxophone, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, euphonium, tuba, and even the ukulele.
But what of the piano? Arrangements have variously been made by Raff, Godowsky and Siloti, but as Bindman notes in her essay, these versions considerably embellish and add to Bach’s original design.
Hers is a markedly different and radical approach; as the publicity puts it:
“Bindman has avoided embellishing these iconic pieces, preserving the intriguing ambiguities in Bach’s implied harmonies and savouring their expressive qualities through the baritone register of a marvellous Bösendorfer piano. These admirably accurate transcriptions reveal the mysterious mathematical grace and flexibility of structure that makes Bach’s art so organic and eternal.”
So what of the results?
These lucid transcriptions certainly bring new clarity to Bach’s endless invention.
Despite preserving the predominantly single line of the original versions, the warmth of the piano sound and register rich in overtones (further blessed by subtly sustained resonance) reveals the harmonic architecture of the pieces with freshly polished coherence.
Certainly there are moments listening to this where I miss the vibrato and expressive dynamic control within a long note that great cellists have imbued these pieces with. But in general, these transcriptions are not merely fascinating, but an equally expressive, exhilarating and rewarding listening experience.
Quite simply (and irrespective of the particular novelty factor here) this is Bach playing of the highest order.
Bindman let’s the music largely speak for itself, with unaffected performances which shine a beautiful hue on the composer’s sense of melodic line while equally serving up buoyant dance movements that present an object lesson in how to bring this music fully to life for our times.
Positive enjoyment of the recording is further boosted by the gorgeous audio quality, Bindman’s Bösendorfer captured at the President Street Studio in Brooklyn, New York, under the watchful intent of producers John C. Baker and Sam Ward, who also served as engineer.
Bindman’s transcriptions may also be purchased as a digital or spiral bound physical score from her website here.
It would be great to see a mainstream publishing house bring these transcriptions to a wider audience: they are inevitably easier to play than the Partitas for example, but offer a wonderful gateway to playing Bach’s keyboard works.
As for the Grand Piano CD release, this oozes quality with its brilliant presentation, generous booklet in English and German, and excellent production.
As we draw towards the end of 2020, it has been an unusual year for recordings.
Several major artists have put out releases that left me a little disappointed, while pianists I had not previously listened to have delivered exceptional and unique recordings of fascinating repertoire.
In this context, Eleonor Bindman’s Bach Cello Suites recording is yet another unexpected but very welcome gift. I have long found the music of Bach a balm to the soul, and this addition to the recorded catalogue further reinforces my appreciation.
Bindman is to be congratulated both for these excellent transcriptions and for her life-affirming performances and recordings of them. Superb!