The Piano Files

Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring

A variety of arrangements and performances by great pianists reveal different facets of Bach’s masterpiece.
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Jesu Joy Man's Desiring

As previous posts have suggested, the range of interpretative possibilities in a single work can make the concept of one ideal performance quite limiting, as great musicians can reveal different facets of favourite masterpieces. As we approach Christmas, it seemed appropriate to compare different performances and transcriptions of a most beloved piece of music with connotations of this season: Bach’s glorious Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.

Dame Myra Hess made the most famous piano transcription of the work (which was originally written for chorus) and the piece has since become associated with her. She was a national heroine, beloved in her native Britain for having arranged daily lunchtime concerts during World War II to boost the public’s morale. A marvellous story that demonstrates the degree to which she had endeared herself to the general population tells of a soldier whistling the tune in a train. His cabin-mate asked him, “Do you like Bach?” “No”, replied the solider. “But you’re whistling a Bach composition.” “That’s not Bach — that’s Myra Hess!”

Hess recorded the work three times, the final occasion being in 1958, when she was 68 years old and in the twilight of her career. She plays with a gorgeous singing sonority and fluid legato phrasing, with some gentle pauses at transition points that bring more charm and depth to her reading. (This particular upload also features the score synchronized with the music.)

Another pianist whose name was inextricably linked with this work is Dinu Lipatti, who as our previous post revealed played the Hess transcription as his final encore at his last public recital a matter of weeks before he died at the age of 33. It was also the first composition he played at his first recital 15 years earlier, as a tribute to his teacher Paul Dukas, who had passed away not long before that concert.

Lipatti made numerous attempts to produce a recording of the piece that satisfied him, making seven takes in 1947 and a similar number in 1950; one version from each set of sessions was issued, though after he died it was the later reading that was always published on vinyl records. The earlier of the two, while a bit more faded in fidelity, has a lush warmth and serenity, reverential and noble in mood, with Lipatti’s trademark transparency and delineated voicing clarifying the incredible score and the beauty of the music.

Irene Scharrer was a dear friend of Myra Hess (they were both pupils of Tobias Matthay) who retired in the 1930s but made very occasional public appearances in later years, particularly two-piano recitals with Hess (if only a recording could be found!). Among her handful of discs is a stunning 1929 account of the Hess transcription of this chorale and it is absolutely magnificent. Scharrer highlights inner lines less prominently voiced in the legendary Hess and Lipatti readings, and her brisker performance features a sumptuous legato, golden singing tone, and a delightful rhythmic lilt. Utterly glorious playing!

Yet another British pianist, Harold Bauer, made his own transcription of the work, which features some slightly different voicing and is of astonishing beauty. He plays it a little bit faster than the others heard thus far, but that does nothing to diminish the elegance of his interpretation. Throughout this performance we hear the beautiful tone for which he was celebrated — particularly exquisite when he brings the melody up to a higher register on two occasions — and his rolling of chords (like Scharrer) adds an extra degree of gentleness to his account.

Next is a filmed performance: utterly remarkable amateur video of the great Italian pianist Sergio Fiorentino playing his own arrangement of the piece after a masterclass in August 1988. Fiorentino proves beyond a doubt that a pianist can create magic even on a less-than-ideal piano (while car horns punctuate the atmosphere), playing with unbelievably seamless legato phrasing, refined and consistent voicing of melodic lines and harmonic support, a clear sense of architectural structure, and, yes, beautiful tone, even on that piano. Watching his hands is like watching the most exquisitely choreographed ballet: what grace and economy of movement, with amazing fingering (notice his rapid but inaudible finger substitution) … indeed, the fluidity of his movement IS the fluidity of his legato. A masterclass by a truly remarkable musician!

Yet another arrangement by another great pianist: here is Wilhelm Kempff playing his own transcription in a magnificent 1945 broadcast (in astonishingly good sound for the time). With some interesting differences from the better-known Hess arrangement, this version builds to a more majestic and dramatic climax that reveals a different character of the music. Kempff’s playing is just marvellous, with seamless phrasing, beautifully balanced chords, and a refined singing sound.

To close, a performance by an artist who left us this year, one of the all-time great pianists who was probably not sufficiently appreciated for his astounding musical and technical mastery: Nelson Freire, who passed away November 1. This concert performance in which he plays the Hess transcription with a grounded, poised clarity and beauty of tone reminiscent of Dinu Lipatti, whom he greatly admired — a reading of sublime beauty, and a fitting end to this collection of performances of this amazing work.

May your holiday season be as warm and beautiful as the music and performances in this collection. Here’s to more sublime music and inspired pianism in 2022!

Website: thepianofiles.com

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