Home listening: August Stradal, the Kitgut Quartet and Kenneth Hamilton

Nicholas Kenyon
Home listening: August Stradal, the Kitgut Quartet and Kenneth Hamilton. Stradal’s Buxtehude arrangements, the origins of the string quartet, and a personal take on Dowland prove revelatory

• For me, and it seems for many others (more than 7m hits on Spotify and counting), a standout classical music track of recent times is Víkingur Ólafsson’s hypnotic rendering of an organ trio sonata movement by Bach in the vividly pianistic transcription by August Stradal (1860-1930). Now a complete disc of first recordings of Stradal piano transcriptions has appeared, of works by Bach’s contemporary Dietrich Buxtehude, whom Bach famously walked many miles to hear.

Buxtehude By Arrangement (Toccata) presents some of the quirky multi-movement preludes and fugues whose eccentric energy undoubtedly inspired Bach, played by the Chinese pianist Meilin Ai. While Buxtehude’s preludes and fugues are short-breathed in form, the two Chaconnes and one Passacaglia are logical and concentrated. Sonorous, imposing, but also highly agile, these remarkable pieces span the full gamut of the modern concert grand, with booming double octaves in the bass capturing the organ pedal parts, and bright-toned high flourishes in the treble.

William Melton’s outstanding booklet note tells us about Stradal as arranger and composer, pupil of Liszt and Bruckner, who clearly became a key figure in interpreting the music of the past for a newly curious 19th- and early 20th-century audience.

• There’s another highly original take on the past from the new Kitgut Quartet on their debut album, Tis too late to be wise (Harmonia Mundi). They’re ingeniously exploring the links between early string ensemble pieces and the string quartet. This first disc collects English music by Purcell, Locke and Blow, and there’s a startling moment when Locke’s Saraband segues into the slow start of Haydn’s Quartet Op 71 No 2. That’s a fully mature string quartet, so expect future albums to fill in the gaps. The Purcell fantasias are strikingly expressive. I maybe would not have included Fairest Isle, which is nothing to do with a quartet, and would have ended with Purcell’s superb G minor Chacony.

• While BBC Radio 3 embarks on its mega Beethoven blitz for his 250th anniversary, the theme of modern takes on the past continues with pianist Kenneth Hamilton’s touching contribution to The Essay (BBC Sounds). Hamilton explores Percy Grainger’s elaborate version of Dowland’s song Now, oh now I needs must part, making it a personal story of loss and death that reaches out from the radio. That is what broadcasting is all about.