J.S. BACH: The Cello Suites, arr. by Valter Despalj – Petrit Ceku, guitar – Eudora multichannel SACD 1602 – CD 1: 58: 57, CD 2: 74:31 (5/6/16) *****:
The cello suites in spectacular hi-res surround sound recorded on guitar in new arrangements by Valter Despalj.
It is with great anticipation that one sits down to take in a guitar recital of the complete Bach Cello Suites by Croatian guitarist Petrit Ceku released by Eudora on SACD. One is always a bit nervous about one’s seat. Too far back and we are with the snoozers who need to be jogged awake. And yet it is awkward, impolite even, to be seated too close; some recordings thrust your head into the very sound-hole of the instrument. But with the first almost too well-known Prelude in G major, we realize with joy that we are ideally positioned in row 6, seat M, in a smallish recital hall with medium-dry acoustic. The balance between the upper end of the guitar and the low E is graciously achieved, while the amber hues of the middle-range are superbly nuanced and affecting. The instrument by Ross Gutmeier is well-behaved in all registers, and yet it is not without sweet spots where the overtones seem to work a little extra magic. It was recorded in the Auditorio San Francisco in Avila, Spain.
The real interest of this recording comes with the announcement that it represents a 20-year-long project by Croatian cellist Valter Despalj to offer a new transcription for guitar. For guitarists as well as Bach enthusiast, this is a chance to peer into the Bachian workshop. The basic problem is well known: How to translate music written for a four-stringed bowed instrument to a six string plucked instrument? Bach himself showed the way in his own reworking of one the suites (No. 5) for lute. In fact he originally wrote it for lute only (the cello version was written by Anna Magdalena), and the guitar is a legitimate modern vehicle for this music. A literal reading of the cello score would seem to be condemned by Bach’s own polyphonic arrangement. The guitar demands the expression of the implicit counterpoint and unstated harmonies of the suites. How one goes about this discovery of that which is implied or perhaps even hidden is the interesting business of the transcriber.
An interview with Valter Despalj included in the very helpful liner notes helps clarify the issues and risks involved. What he and every other Bach transcriber hopes to avoid is a version which is rejected by the musician (or audience) as a spurious, an unsatisfying pastiche, or a dumbing-down of the Kapelmeister’s work. Comparisons with other recordings brings into view the range of possibilities and helps us place this recording along a continuum of how much extra, non-Bach material is to be found in the transcription. Perhaps Busoni-Bach can be used as an an example of one extreme in which an alien aesthetic has taken over to such an extent that the hyphen is required.
On this scale I would say that the arrangement is modest. Added bass notes and an explicit harmonic texture are carried out unobtrusively and effectively, and yet the effect is enormous, amounting to the creation of something quite new. We can see this especially clearly in the monophonic preludes, such as the Prelude of the Second Suite in D minor. On the cello, this sombre melody carries little harmonic freight. But here, under the nimble fingers of Petrit Ceku, we discover a hidden conversation between the middle voices. The double stops are transformed into strummed chords, the ornaments become entirely guitaristic. It is a new piece of music and a very good one.
A further triumph of this impressive recording is the playing of Petrit Ceku. If the arrangements are an intelligently modest attempt to discover the infinite possibilities of Bach, then this guitarist seems especially well-suited to the task. At no point does his extraordinary technique take precedence over the music. His mastery of tone and inflection is everywhere in evidence. The music swings gloriously, even if it never quite lifts off the ground as it should in the Prelude to the last Suite or in a few of the Courantes. As to the second question, I listened to all of the Sarabandes to see how well the harmonically enriched textures could be borne along on a weaker pulse. I was impressed by how the Sarabande of BWV 1007 breathed in a state of zen-like trance, significantly slower than the cello version by the supreme Ophelie Gaillard, which I have on hand for comparison, and yet never slackening or losing its rapt concentration.
A final test comes with the two Suites BWV 1011 and BWV 1012. Here we are in deeper water. The technical demands are higher and the emotional complexity of a different order. One expects to be dazzled by the passage work of the Gavotte and then to be held spellbound by hypnotism of the Prelude of the D-Major Suite. Here, the guitarist’s ability to articulate the different voices and his crisp phrasing impress greatly. Perhaps the only thing that this player does not achieve, and perhaps no guitarist could, is the certain rhapsodic power that belongs to the bowed instrument and shines forth in the final prelude of BWV 1012.
In short, Petrit Ceku has delivered a stunning performance of these shape-shifting works. These arrangements are a revitalization of the genius of Bach as a living tradition. The engineers have created a sound image that is life-like, immediate and deeply pleasing. This is a recording for the ages.