Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Tanya Gabrielian’s “Music of Recovery”

Today is the release date for pianist Tanya Gabrielian’s debut album Remix on MSR Classics. The release was timed to fit in with Gabrielian’s current eleven-city tour, which began this past Sunday. Both the album and the tour have a backstory that threatens to overrule the music itself, so a bit of background is in order.

Gabrielian graduated early, at the age of sixteen, from her high school in California as valedictorian with a spot at Harvard University for a major on biomedical engineering. However, before going to Harvard, she decided to take a gap year at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Feeling like an outsider, she turned to the study of kung fu in parallel with her piano and viola work at the Academy. She would eventually receive both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the Academy, along with a prize for best final recital and a DipRAM, the highest performance award.

All of this took place in the context of a life-changing experience. During one of her kung fu sessions, she slipped on a puddle of sweat and fell forward. To avoid injury to her arms, she pulled them back, which left her head unguarded. The result was not only a head injury but also a twisted spine and a month-long treatment involving nine hospitals and two operating rooms, all in the setting of a foreign medical system. Her one source of comfort came from her recordings of the solo violin and cello compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach.

In this context Remix amounts to a document of Gabrielian’s psychological healing process that accompanied her physical healing. The result is that she prepared this album to present piano transcriptions of those compositions that saw her through this difficult period. It also explains why her tour will include performances for members of local affiliates of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Thus the album itself is an intensely personal statement, probably more so than just about any available recording of music that Bach composed with the keyboard in mind. Nevertheless, for those of us interested in the music itself, the album turns out to be an interesting study of the art of transcription. Indeed, the transcribers include Bach himself in the opening (Adagio) movement of the BWV 1005 violin sonata in C major. (The entire sonata is included on the album, but it is a composite. The second and third movements are transcriptions by Camille Saint-Saëns, while the final movement was transcribed by Arturo Cardelús.) The are two transcriptions by Alexander Siloti, an Andante from the BWV 1003 sonata in A minor and the familiar chaconne from the BWV 1004 partita in D minor. The album concludes with the entire BWV 1008 cello suite in D minor transcribed by Leopold Godowsky.

Those who have been following my writing for some time know that I have had a long-standing interest in “the art of transcription,” which is both the title of one of the earliest articles I wrote on this site and the title of a recording by Earl Wild based on a Carnegie Hall recital he gave with the same name in the fall of 1981. Thus, this album appealed to me because all of the transcriptions were new to me. I had encountered Siloti in other contexts (which included the music of Bach); and my Godowsky experience included both recitals and recordings. I also knew that Saint-Saëns had done Bach transcriptions, but I had not yet had a chance to listen to any of them. On the other hand this was my first encounter with Cardelús, and the only transcriptions by Bach himself that I knew came from the so-called Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach.

As my interest has matured, I have discovered that I tend to sort out listening experiences on the basis of whether one is listening to the transcriber or the composer being transcribed. The ne plus ultra example of the former is just about any transcription of Bach prepared by Ferruccio Busoni, the best known of which is his treatment of that chaconne from BWV 1004. Like Busoni, Siloti was not afraid to embellish his transcriptions with newly invented material; and this is most evident when he adds an additional line of counterpoint to BWV 855, the E minor prelude from the first volume of The Well-Tempered Clavier. Siloti’s approach to the BWV 1004 chaconne is not quite as extreme; but, for those more interested in listening to Bach, he tends to be more satisfying than Busoni. Godowsky works, on the other hand, were never about anyone other than Godowsky, which means that any sense of Bach in his transcription of BWV 1008 is not just coincidental but most likely accidental!

In many respects Bach’s transcription of his own music is the most interesting track on the album. Listening to it, one would not suspect that it was originally written for solo violin. To be fair, however, listening to Gabrielian’s performance on this album tweaked my curiosity as to how Bach would have played it on one of his own keyboard instruments. From a rhetorical point of view, Gabrielian seemed less interested in presenting “Bach on Bach” and more in providing a reading that would make a smooth transition for the Saint-Saëns transcriptions that would follow. The need for such a transition was evident from the approach to the fugue that follows the opening adagio. Saint-Saëns clearly understood every nut and bolt of that fugue, and Gabrielian could not have given a better account of what makes that fugue tick. However, Saint-Saëns’ style of presentation was unabashedly rooted in the nineteenth century; and Gabrielian’s interpretation was definitely directed more in service of Saint-Saëns than in that of Bach.

I have no idea what sorts of programs Gabrielian has planned for her tour, but there is no doubt in my mind that Saint-Saëns’ transcription of the fugue from BWV 1005 should make for one hell of an encore!

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