At first blush, this may seem a quaint relic at best. The historical-performance movement, with its small ensembles, gut strings, and valveless horns, has pretty much taken over Baroque and Classical performance today, leaving a vaguely bad odor around attempts to arrange the music of Bach for larger ensembles, or even to perform it with them.
But, through the first half of the twentieth century, the composer was not so ghettoized; as a cornerstone of Western music, his music was considered part of a well-rounded musician's regular repertoire. Since Bach didn't write for symphony orchestra, conductors who wanted to program his great works could only do so in arrangements; indeed, many of these transcriptions were made by conductors for their own use. And it was frequently the only way that concert patrons, especially those without phonographs, got to hear the music at all. So this material represents an honorable tradition of concert practice.
Biddulph has gathered recordings spanning twenty years, ranging from Sir Edward Elgar's 1926 recording of the C minor Fantasia and Fugue in his own transcription, through Lucien Cailliet's arrangement of the G minor "Little" Fugue in Fritz Reiner's 1946 Pittsburgh recording. (The selections are arranged, however, in a pleasing listening sequence, rather than in chronological order.) Compared to modern "historical practice," the performances and arrangements might seem to represent a single monolithic, incorrect style, but in fact they exemplify a variety of approaches and aesthetics.
To my ears, the most successful transcriptions are those that unapologetically make use of the modern orchestra's full range of tonal and timbral resources, thus providing a fresh angle on the scores. I especially liked Frederick Stock's arrangement of the "St. Anne" Prelude and Fugue (his own 1941 recording), which, at its peaks, transports us to the tonal grandeur and glamor of the Stokowski era. But it's not all about volume: there are also some most affecting, carefully gauged long fades, and the soft-edged woodwinds introducing the fugue contrast sharply with the Prelude's closing grand peroration. Biddulph also includes Schoenberg's less sumptuous, more organlike arrangement of the same piece (Erich Kleiber, 1930), so you can compare the styles.
A surprise is Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt's orchestration of the Italian Concerto, originally for harpsichord -- few multi-movement pieces received the transcription treatment. In his 1936 recording, it works nicely as a sort of big concerto grosso: the outer movements' bluff vitality and charm suggest Handel, but the dark, brooding central Andante is Bach to the core.
The D minor Toccata and Fugue, popularized by Stokowski, also appears twice, though not in his arrangement. Alois Melichar's version, in his 1939 recording, is less ostentatious and portentous. Those who find it too chaste may prefer Sir Henry Wood's more imaginative, liquid arrangement in his 1935 recording. (Stoki's own work is well enough represented elsewhere, but Biddulph gives us his solemn, dignified string-based version of the Arioso from Cantata 156.)
Not all the "big" arrangements work. Dimitri Mitropoulos strains mightily for effect in the G minor Fantasia and Fugue in his 1942 recording, coming off as inflated. Elgar's C minor Fantasia and Fugue, with its splashy cymbals and "rocket" runs, sounds more Elgar than Bach. And I suspect there's more color in Respighi's arrangement of the C minor Passacaglia and Fugue than Toscanini was interested in eliciting in 1939; even so, one appreciates the soft brass phrases, embellished by woodwind responses, as a typical Respighian touch.
The shorter works and arrangements are intrinsically less ambitious, but they make a lovely effect. The Pick-Mangiagalli version of the Preludio from the third violin partita (Koussevitzky/Boston, 1945) amplifies the dynamics and sonority of Bach's original while retaining its simple, direct spirit. John Barbirolli’s loving arrangement of "Sheep May Safely Graze," forthright and unsentimental, with a dark dignity, conveys a more authentic Edwardian voice than Elgar's own work. Malcolm Sargent's orchestral expansion of the Air ("on a G string," from Wilhelmj's solo arrangement) retains Wilhelmj's midrange setting of the long-breathed theme, with answering soft-edged woodwinds suggesting organ overtones.
Otto Klemperer's 1946 Paris recording of a chorale prelude and Bist du bei mir are mostly of documentary interest, being no great shakes in either playing or recording; indeed, Jascha Horenstein's two 1929 chorale preludes (Schoenberg again), despite some graininess, emerge with more presence!
Mark Obert-Thorn's transfers, as expected, enliven the erratic source materials considerably. The start of the C minor Fantasia is very hissy, though it eventually settles; hissy static also mars Schoenberg's "St. Anne," and there's a single brief, drastic drop in level during the Passacaglia and Fugue. Otherwise, the recordings come up surprisingly vividly for their vintage.
S.F.V. (OCT. 2000)