The Transcriptions of Alexander Siloti

As an impressionable teenager I was awestruck by the incredible sounds Emil Gilels managed to draw from the piano in Alexander Siloti’s gorgeous Prelude in B minor, a transcription of Bach’s E minor Prelude that appears both in the Clavier-Büchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and as Prelude no. 10 from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier. The way Gilels let the melodic line emerge from the rippling accompaniment in the repeat without any trace of harshness made a huge impression on me. I now realise that Gilels’ performance was an object lesson in voicing and tone colour. 

Siloti moves the music from Bach’s original key of E minor down to the darker key of B minor, and gives a repeat where the player has to change the texture and voicing. The first time through, we focus on the right hand semiquavers; on the repeat, we shine a light on the melody created by the left hand thumb (the semiquaver figuration now retreating into the background). According to the dedicatee, the composer’s daughter Kyriena Siloti, it was her father’s practice to leave out left hand arpeggiation the first time through, but to include it on the repeat so that the thumb line could be emphasised more easily. 

Here is Bach’s original, played with great energy and quirkiness by Friedrich Gulda.

And here is Gilels in Siloti’s transcription in a recording from a Berlin recital in 1965 (it was his last encore).

If you love to play this transcription you might consider exploring some of the other Bach transciptions made by Siloti, and there are quite a few. Here is the Andante from the Sonata for solo violin, BWV 1003, played by Alessio Bax.

I have on my shelves a copy of Siloti’s Transcriptions for the Young, four studies after the cello suites of Bach. Ideal for the lower intermediate student, the player is required to divide up a single line between the two hands. Siloti’s very Russian pedal marks blend the notes into harmonic clouds (there is no need to be squeamish about catching non-harmonic tones in a pedal as indicated), and the young pianist gets to acquire a valuable technical skill while at the same time familiarising themselves with some great music from the cello repertoire. 

Recently a student brought along Siloti’s transcription of Gluck’s Melody (the famous second ballet from Orfeo ed Euridice), a version I had not heard before (people usually go for the Sgambati transcription ). It is very lovely, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

Here it is, played by Alexandre Tharaud.

Who was Alexander Siloti?

Alexander Siloti (1863-1945) was a student of Tchaikovsky, Nikolai and Anton Rubinstein, and Liszt. In addition to his career as a pianist, he was also a conductor, impresario, and transcriber of music for piano.

Siloti was born near Kharkov in 1863, followed ten years later by his first cousin, Sergei Rachmaninov. After studies with Liszt in Germany, Siloti returned home and took up an appointment at the Moscow Conservatory, concertising across Russia, Europe and the USA to rave reviews. As a concert promoter, he introduced the music of dozens of composers to the Russian public in the famous Siloti Concerts of 1903-1917, including Albeniz, Debussy, de Falla, Delius, Elgar, Enesco, Mahler and Schoenberg.

Siloti moved to New York and taught piano at Juilliard until 1942. Although he lived well into the period of recordings he disliked recording and never made any discs – unlike the other virtuosi of his time, who naturally ended up eclipsing him for this reason. The only recordings we have are seven piano rolls and something he made in his own apartment in New York in 1941. Musicologist Richard Taruskin pointed out that “Alexander Siloti was probably the greatest pianist who could have made records but didn’t, and so his greatness has been forgotten.”

The Alexander Siloti Collection

There is a publication I think all serious pianists will want on their bookshelves, The Alexander Siloti Collection, published by Carl Fischer in 2003, with an extensive and very informative introduction by Dr. Charles Barber. The volume contains editions, transcriptions and arrangements for solo piano, including amongst many other rarities a fascinating arrangement of Liszt’s Un sospiro concert study. According to Siloti’s note, “Franz Liszt’s playing of this Etude differed greatly from the published version. In fact, he changed it so greatly and added so much that was new that I found it impossible to mark every individual change”. As a student of Liszt, I think we can consider his arrangement as coming from the horse’s mouth and well worth exploring.

I am going to leave you with Siloti’s transcription of Saint-Saëns The Swan, which you will find in The Alexander Siloti Collection. It is played in this recording by John Novacek.

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