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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Works for Lute - Volume 1
Suite in E minor BWV 996 (c.1720) [13.30]; Suite in C minor (trans. A minor) BWV 997 (c.1740) [13.37]; Suite in G minor BWV 995 (trans. from Cello Suite No.5 in A minor) [23.17]; Prelude, Fugue and Allegro in E flat major, BWV 998 (trans. D major) (1740-45) [12.34]
Jason Vieaux (guitar)
rec. no details given
AZICA ACD71250 [70.05]
Experience Classicsonline

Imagine the scene if you will. It is 1738 and the great J.S. goes to Dresden and he meets Silvius Leopold Weiss court lutenist to the Saxon Elector Frederick Augustus I. He also meets the renowned Johann Kropfgans, a gifted pupil of Weiss who is lutenist to the Elector's chief minister. J.S. does not play the lute but is interested. The instrument has really had its day but seems yet to have so much promise. Bach also found time to make music with these two colleagues. An eye-witness account reports as much. The following year Bach writes the Suite in C minor and the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro. He had used the lute in St. John Passion and as part the continuo and elsewhere. In his so-called Weimar period from 1708-1717 he had written other lute works including the E minor Suite.

Perhaps I am being a bit of a purist but I find it curious that a guitarist would choose to record this repertoire especially if, as here, he has to transpose three of the four works into another key. Is it not like playing Bach on the piano? Perhaps it's like saying that the F sharp Prelude and Fugue are a bit tricky so we'll transpose them into G? There's nothing wrong with that, I hear you say, nevertheless it needs to be pointed out.

This is, by my count Jason Vieaux's sixth recording for the enterprising Azica Cleveland-based label. However it's the first time he has recorded anything from the baroque period. I have missed the others but enjoyed some extracts from these discs over the internet.

I started the CD with the short Suite in E minor, which is untransposed and is a perfect key for the guitar. The pattern is followed similarly in the other suites: Prelude and Fugue (here quite straightforward and easy) an Allemande, then a typically French Courante, followed by an expressive Sarabande - gorgeous in this suite. Then comes the best known movement: a two-part Bourée ending with a Gigue. In other words the work follows the standard suite form which we also find in the solo cello suites except that here the Minuet is excluded.

The C minor Suite is transposed up from A minor. Richard E. Rodda, in his useful booklet notes, dates it to 1740. The work dispenses with the Allemande and Courante and instead has a long fugue made even more involved by a complete da capo of its first half. In addition the Gigue is followed by a double, or variation, which here is separately tracked. It was whilst listening to this work that Vieaux's artistry really hit home. His sense of colour, phrase shaping and beautifully expressive dynamics are remarkable. It is not easy, especially in a long fugue, to keep the listener with you.

Apparently we can date the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro in E flat major (played here in D) to 1740-45. It is also possible to play it on a keyboard or I should say a clavier. The Fugue is complex for the guitar and in fairness I don't feel that it's one of the, master's best. Even so the Prelude is especially moving and the final allegro lively and catchy. It brings the CD to a happy conclusion.

We end at the beginning and with the finest work on the CD. It's difficult to date precisely when Bach made his lute transcription of the Fifth Cello Suite. He may have intended it for the 'cembal' (harpsichord) according to the rather ambiguous manuscript. In any event it works beautifully especially in the hands of Jason Vieaux. There are two Gavottes in this suite. The second is a 'Gavotte en Rondo'. However it is the austere and very deeply thoughtful Prelude which gives this piece its particular gravitas. The closeness of the recording makes one feel as if the performance is happening privately in one's home.

It's heartening to know that the disc is labeled 'Volume 1'. Despite my caveats the playing displays consummate artistry and the music is sublime.

Gary Higginson



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