BACH: Suite in E Major; Suite in A Minor; Christ lag in Todesbanden; Ciaccona from Partita for Solo Violin – Ismo Eskelinen, guitar – Alba

by | Jan 19, 2014 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

BACH: Suite in E Major, BWV 1006a; Suite in A Minor (orig. g minor), BWV 995; Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV 277; Ciaccona from Partita for Solo Violin (all arr. by Ismo Eskelinen) – Ismo Eskelinen, guitar – Alba multichannel SACD ABCD 354, 61:56 [Distr. by Albany] (10/08/2013) ****:

The traditional idea that Bach wrote a body of music specifically for lute has been challenged by recent scholarship. And even if Bach had the lute specifically in mind for most of these pieces, which is doubtful, the majority of the so-called lute pieces are transcriptions of works originally written for other instruments. This is true of the Suite in E Major, which is a transcription of Bach’s Third Partita for Solo Violin, BWV 1006. Bach transcribed it without specifying an instrument. Finnish guitarist Ismo Eskelinen isn’t the first to question whether it was written for the lute; he writes, “The low register and the texture are thought to point to the lute, but E major is an extremely unlikely key for a Baroque lute.” He adds that E major works perfectly well on the guitar “though Bach’s texture still poses plenty of challenges.”

One possible answer to the riddle is the fact that Bach owned and played a Lautenwerk or lute-harpsichord, an instrument that produces chordal textures like a harpsichord (though thinner) but a basic sound like a lute. Maybe this is the instrument Bach thought of as he wrote his transcription; maybe he even worked it out at the instrument’s keyboard. Then again, he may have had the intimate strains of the clavichord in mind. These are questions that I, a non-specialist, will leave to others more able to address them. After all, Eskelinen himself doesn’t try to crack the riddle, only notes there is a good reason for transcribing the work for guitar, which others have done before him.

He notes that Bach was so taken with the Prelude to the suite that he used it as the opening of his cantata Wir Danken Gott, BWV 29. Eskelinen hints that he was influenced by this as well: “Trying to capture in a transcription for guitar the rich sound of organ, trumpets, and timpani. . .is an inspiring task.” I’m not sure he’s successful at what strikes me as monumental rather than merely inspiring, but his transcription of the whole work is colorful, vital—a fine listening experience.

The manuscript of Suite BWV 995 indicates it was written specifically for lute and is dedicated to a Monsieur Schouster, presumed to be a lutenist; but even this work is not entirely suited to the instrument, Eskelinen observes. Following tradition, he transposes the piece to A minor from the original key of G minor. The more somber, even melancholy, nature of the music seems especially soulful on the guitar because of the instrument’s increased dynamic range (and that’s doubly true for the lute-harpsichord, which has an even less assertive sound).  Eskelinen’s transcription is if anything more successful than that of the E Major Suite, fine though that is.

The works that close out the program are lifted out of context, so to speak, the Ciaconna being the final movement of Bach’s Second Partita for Solo Violin and Christ lag in Todesbanden, an arrangement of Martin Luther’s chorale melody for four-voice choir and instruments. Though he doesn’t really doesn’t need to defend his transcriptions, of course, Eskelinen notes that the ciaccona (better known by its French name chaconne) is based on a Spanish dance “that was specifically accompanied by guitar.” He goes on to opine that “the dramatic elements, the contrasts of major and minor, are enhanced.” That’s debatable, I think, and the guitar can’t supply the special drama contained in those big, potent double-stops for the violin. But I will concede that the work takes on “a different nature when removed from its context” and voiced on the guitar; and viewed in this light, Eskelinen’s arrangement and playing of it are quite satisfying.

As to Christ lag in Totesbanden, Eskelinen notes that “music scholar Helga Thöne has spotted several chorale melodies woven into the Ciaccona,” and so he concludes that the chorale makes for an effective prelude to that latter work. (In fact, Thöne’s study of the Ciaccona has led her to believe that it was originally written as a musical tribute to Bach’s deceased first wife, Barbara. Earlier, I reviewed the choral group Tenebrae’s recording of the Partita, with chorale interpolations based on Thöne’s surmise.) Again, the results that Eskelinen achieves are satisfying; the high harmonics in his arrangement of the chorale are hauntingly beautiful. So no objections from this quarter.

Surround sound may be thought a luxury in the case of recording a solo guitar, but the sense of presence in this recording suggest the extra layer of technology (and extra outlay by collectors) is worthwhile. This is a fine disc for those who want to explore a more intimate side of Bach.

—Lee Passarella

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