János Vázsonyi Shades of Bach
Imagine Bach entering the hollowly echoing space of Agnuskirche at Cöthen on a rainy autumn afternoon. He stops in the middle of the deserted church, closes his eyes, limbers up his fingers, takes out his saxophone and begins to play, improvising for his own pleasure, and as the bitter-sweet, melancholic melody soars up, trails away and rises again, we feel he is conversing with God.
About the album
Recorded at the Phoenix Studio, Hungary
Recording producer: Ibolya Tóth
Balance engineer: János Bohus
Digital editing: Mária Falvay
Cover and portrait photos: István Huszti
Design: Meral Yasar
Produced by László Gőz
Currently out of stock.
J.S. Bach: Sonata in C minor (from the Musical Offering), BWV 1079
J.S. Bach: Sonata in G minor, BWV 1029
J.S. Bach: Partita in A minor, BWV 1013
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This recording gave scope to an unusual experiment - Bach's music played on the saxophone. An anachronism, of course, since the saxophone did not appear in the history of musical instruments until almost a hundred years after the death of Johann Sebastian Bach (1750), and only became accepted and popular during the American and European jazz age, from the early 20th century onwards. In other words, the creation of the saxophone from the clarinet by Master Adolphe Sax in the 1840s coincided with the redaction of the first edition of the collective works of Bach; and the first artistic movement advocating authentic, traditional performance under the banner carrying the since then oft-repeated slogan "back to the original sound of Bach's music", commenced at the turn of the century, simultaneously with the rise of the saxophone.
What would the Maestro himself say on hearing his works performed on one of the most typical and popular jazz instruments? - might ask those who venerate Bach scores like the Bible, the Holy Writ of music, and consider departure from them sacrilegious or even barbaric. Well, it is not at all certain that Bach would be averse to the sound of the saxophone. He would perhaps be surprised at how much its sound resembles one or another of the wind instruments of his age, the oboa da caccia or the chalumeau, regarded as one of the ancestors of the clarinet. Yet Bach's music has not been played on these instruments for about two hundred years; and the sound of 20th century winds and strings is almost as far removed from the sound produced by the instruments of Bach's age as that of the saxophone.
Let us delve a little deeper into history! Bach was every inch an instrumental musician. He played several instruments, the keyboards superbly, was in fact the greatest virtuoso of his age. What part did he assign to a given instrument in his works? If for instance in a cantata he wished to represent the beating of a heart overwhelmed by emotion referred to in the text with the plucking of strings, the relevant music could hardly be entrusted to the organ or the flute. On the other hand, Bach himself set many works and movements for other instruments (a cello suite for the lute, a solo violin theme for the organ) not to speak of the various transcriptions and arrangements of the same musical material. (This has happened to the music of other composers: Vivaldi's violin concertos, for example, have been turned into organ and cembalo concertos a la Bach). The custom and technique of transcribing was long established by Bach's time, and in the Baroque age, when composers were obliged to continually extend the repertory of the musical environment entrusted to their care (be this a town, a royal court, or a church), self-repetition by variation gained vital importance. In this respect, in comparison with Händel or Telemann for example, Bach was actually quite moderate.
The essence of Bach's transcriptions is not that the given musical material be radically altered as compared to the original. Bach simply makes it possible for the piece to be performed on the new acoustic medium without particular effort; for that purpose, he generally changes the key and if he transcribes from a melodic to a chordal instrument, he enriches the material accordingly. From this - and from many other circumstances - it may be inferred that at the time, scores recorded an arrested moment, the status quo of the music, or served as a rough reminder for reviving it on the basis of the customs and rules of performance.
The matter is not as simple as it sounds however, at least not in Bach's case, who was exceptional in this as in other respects. There are several pieces, especially among the later ones, which were not written for a specific performance, and some were not intended for performance at all. For whom and for what reason, then, were these pieces composed? Partly for the connoisseurs, the musical elite, for reading, or occasionally for performance ad libitum, and partly, however strange it may sound, for posterity, as a message in a bottle from the sinking island of the Baroque era. Thus there exist certain works by Bach that have no set, specific instructions concerning acoustics or orchestration, as in the case of the majority of the pieces collected under the title of Musical Offering or in the case of the last, unfinished great cycle, The art of Fugue. In other words, Bach himself gave a free hand to the musicians of his age and those of posterity to choose the tone-colour of these works.
Even a cursory survey of the history of Bach interpretations, from the discovery of his music in the 1820s to the present day, will reveal such enormous differences from age to age that one could almost say that, intentionally or unintentionally, Bach's works have lived on in transcripts. We do not know how Matthias Passion sounded the first time it was performed, conducted by Mendelssohn in Leipzig in 1829, but if we compare the recording conducted by Klemperer (1962) to that of Harnoncourt (1973) or Gardiner (1988), advocates of authentic, historical treatment, it is as if we were listening to a different composition, so radically has the approach to Bach's music changed in just a few years. The repertory of the present recording is another case in point: Bach's sonata for three gambas and cembalo is still relatively seldom played on the viola da gamba - cello players have monopolised it for their own instrument, and today's violoncello and the viola da gamba of Bach's age are worlds apart. Not to mention the infinite series of "open" Bach transcripts in the fields of classical, jazz and popular music.
How should we then evaluate this saxophone-version of Bach? Those who are familiar with the original version of the pieces on this recording will certainly recognise their novelty and extraordinariness. The disparity is due only partially to the sound of the saxophone, to a larger extent to the manner of interpretation, which is the key factor here; above all, the way in which the instrument is sounded by young musicians raised and versed in jazz (as well as classical music). Jazz inherited a great deal from the earlier (pre-19th century) natural way of music-playing and also from folk music, where and when the demarcation between the stage and the audience was not as sharp in a physical sense either as it was to become later. Jazz has preserved the conversation-like informality, spontaneity of music. Interpreted in such a spontaneous, easy way, an 18th century score has a totally different effect than that ambiance of solemnity and superiority generated and demanded by a concert stage. A saxophone player is not obliged to perform Bach at every exam from an early age, and therefore does not play this music with the constraint instilled by the expectation of brilliant execution, just "plays" the notes, simply and with ease, blows them into the air as if they were soap bubbles. And like soap bubbles, the notes and motifs drift and float according to their rules. It is easy to become totally engrossed in following their meandering, occasionally extemporaneous and seemingly arbitrary passage. To translate the simile into music: this rendering is characterised by a special, unusual kind of free phrasing, in a tempo much slower than that dictated by today's unwritten laws concerning the interpretation of Bach, a meditative contemplation. This is true primarily of the partita (suite) in A Minor, written originally for solo cross flute. In the other two works, one performed by two, the other by three instruments, this bold rubato is not feasible. Here, beside the tempo determining the character of the work, tone-colour is given a more important role, first and foremost the unity of tone-colour in the trio sonata of the Musical Offering composed originally for flute, violon and cembalo, a type of arrangement in which the parts are merged to a greater extent, but which brings into greater relief the pattern, the structure of the notes.
Listening to the CD a strange feeling takes hold of me, possibly provoked by my own intuitions or interpretations: it seems as if Bach's music were being transformed into jazz. It is not New Orleans, or swing, or even bebop that I am thinking of, but the modern, alternative language of jazz. From one angle, the new recording by Vázsonyi is alternative jazz composed of Bach's notes, from another, it is a Bach interpretation tinted with jazz-like associations. Let the listener decide from which end of the bridge he chooses to approach it. One thing is certain: whichever end he chooses, he will not reach the other side. The experience hovers somewhere in between.
translated by Fruzsina Balkay, Eszter Molnár
János Vázsonyi, born in 1970 in Budapest, comes from a family of musicians. He was a saxophone major at the Budapest Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music, later studied at the College of Buddhism. Egon a falon, his first jazz-rock ensemble, played at the Pori Jazz Festival. Drums, his second group, made three ethno-jazz records, and the current one, Triton, also blends folk music with jazz, adding certain elements of classical music. His groups have toured France, Italy and Germany; he has played with the Kőszegi Quintet, Attila Zoller and Gábor Gadó and has contributed to numerous records.
His attachment to classical and baroque music was deepened by playing music with his violinist father and piano teacher mother. His special arrangements – horn-saxophone, organ-saxophone – transgress the usual interpretation patterns, and his present solo project is also a unique venture in the area of classical music: he plays the canon sonatas of Telemann and others solo, substituting the second solo instrument with an echo.
Dániel Váczi was born in 1972 in Budapest. He played the violin for ten years and started to play the saxophone at the age of 17. In 1998, he took a degree in Biology at the Loránd Eötvös University, Budapest. He studied the saxophone with Mihály Borbély, and musical theory and composition with Iván Madarász. He attended the Jazz Department of the Budapest Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music for one year. He currently plays in the groups Plastic Ohara, Timeless Life, Kada, Nigun and Chalaban, and contributed to the following records: Plastic Ohara Plays Big Drastique, Timeless Life Whatwatch?, Kada Búcsúzás, Gábor Gadó One Glimpse Is Not Enough, Yonderboi Shallow and Profound, Iván Kamarás Bombajó and Triton Indulj el.
Katalin Csillagh was born in 1981 in Budapest. At the age of ten she gave a performance of her own compositions in the Great Hall of the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music. At twelve, she was admitted to the preparatory class of the Béla Bartók Conservatory of Music. She is currently studying under Professor György Nádor at the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music. She attended the piano courses of Oleg Maisenberg and the composition courses of Messianen-disciple Emmy Henz-Diémand at the Viennese Academy of Music, as well as the Hungarian courses of László Baranyay and Ferenc Rados, and the London Steinway course of Alberto Portugheis. In 1998 she won the Kadosa Award at the Hungarian National Secondary School Piano Contest. In 1999, she won first prize at the international piano competition organized by EPTA, the European Piano Teachers Association based in London. Her first CD, Sonatas, appeared in 2000. In 2001, she won the scholarship of the Glenn Gould Professional School of the Royal Conservatory of Music, Toronto. In 2000 and 2001, she was the regular soloist of the MÁV Symphony Orchestra, and appeared several times as guest soloist at the concerts organised by the Hungarian Centre for Culture in London.