Bach Tears of-Babylon Papastefanou First Hand FHR141

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Tears from BabylonPiano Transcriptions
Alexandra Papastefanou (piano)
rec. 2022, Alternative Stage, Greek National Opera, Athens
First Hand Records FHR141 [60]

Alexandra Papastefanou has been praised on these pages for her recordings of Bach, first by Stephen Greenbank reviewing the complete Well Tempered Clavier (First Hand Records FHR65) and then by David R. Dunsmore in the French Suites (First Hand Records FHR70). She has also recorded the Goldberg Variations (First Hand Records FHR110) and I am delighted to be listening to this recording of her own transcriptions. In this she follows in the footsteps of pianists and keyboard players stretching back to Bach’s lifetime with Ferrucio Busoni, Carl Tausig, Max Reger, Camille Saint-Saèns just four names from a list of arrangers that would cover several pages.

Papastefanou writes that she has chosen pieces she loves and when possible hadn’t been arranged by others, though she does play two pieces that Samuel Feinberg arranged (the largo from BWV.529 and the chorale Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr) as well as Ertöt uns durch dein Güte that Walter Rummel arranged. Her arrangements are very sympathetic and idiomatic, eschewing the gloss of something like Tausig’s D minor Toccata and Fugue for instance as well as arbitrary doubling of octaves – she is not trying to recreate organ textures as a rule. The disc opens with two movements from the Trio Sonata in C; the allegro is a fine opener in much the same vein as the Prelude from Bach’s E major Partita in Rakhmaninov’s transcription. The Largo is somewhat lighter textured than Feinberg’s masterful version; the sparse lines of Bach’s original are faithfully reproduced and the melody reappearing in bar 5 is an alto line rather than the baritone line that Feinberg opts for. Papastefanou delves into the cantatas for many of these transcriptions and the three chorale arrangements here are worthy additions to the ten that Busoni wrote; she makes light work of the fast chordal parts in Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren and Ertöt uns durch dein Güte. There is a marvellous sense of line in the aching beauty of Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen, one of four cantata arias she plays; the crowning glory must be her sublime version of Die Seele ruht in Jesu Händen with its wonderful balance of textures, allowing the soprano and oboe duet to sing with the utmost finesse supported by an accompaniment of utter delicacy.

Two other transcriptions are a little more unusual. A poised Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr seemingly plays through in much the same way as the other transcriptions here but instead of a cadence Papastefanou returns to the opening and as the chorale prelude plays again a new voice is heard, a voice from the age of jazz adding its own reflections on Bach’s original, a wonderful blend. Even more successful to my ears is another chorale prelude An Wasserflüssen Babylon; not content to create a miracle of textured playing in the prelude itself she takes the hypnotic mood of the work as the inspiration for an extemporisation based on Peace piece by jazz pianist Bill Evans, effortlessly combining the styles of these two great improvisers separated by over two centuries. As an encore Papastefanou plays Myra Hess’ well known and well-loved arrangement of Jesu, of man’s desiring in what is the fastest version I have heard; even the swiftest already in my collection – Walter Gieseking – is 3:12 to Papastefanou’s 2:54. She plays it beautifully and ultimately with no sense of hurry, but the opening bars do come as something of a surprise, especially on the heels of An Wasserflüssen Babylon. All in all this is a fabulous album, wide-ranging in scope and mood, played with reverence and love for the music without resorting to indulgence. I am bowled over by her sense of colour and texture, with real clarity to the voicing; this is Bach playing of a high order.

Rob Challinor

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Transcribed by Alexandra Papastefanou
Trio Sonata No.5 in C major BWV529
Chorale: Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren BWV51 No 4
Aria: Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen BWV13 No 1
Chorale: Der Gott, der mir hat versprochen BWV13 No 3
Aria: Gott hat alles wohlgemacht BWV35 No 4
Gleich der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt –
Sinfonia BWV18 No 1
Aria: Mein Seelenschatz ist Gottes Wort BWV18 No 4
Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr
BWV711 playing (with) Bach
Aria: Die Seele ruht in Jesu Händen BWV127 No 3
Chorale: Ertöt uns durch dein Güte BWV22 No 4
An Wasserflüssen Babylon
BWV.653 A tribute to Bill Evans
Transcribed by Myra Hess
Joy of Man’s Desiring, from BWV147