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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers


Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Six Suites for Cello Solo (arr. acoustic guitar)
Suite No. 1 in G major, BMW 1007 [21:11]
Suite No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1008 [23:43]
Suite No. 3 in C major, BWV 1009 [27:11]
Suite No. 4 in E-flat major, BWV 1010 [27:24]
Suite No. 5 in C minor, BWV 1011 [30:23]
Suite No. 6 in D major, BWV 1012 [35:00]
Steven Hancoff (guitar)
rec. dates and location not given.
OUT OF TIME MUSIC CO. OUT-960CD [3 CDs: 45:15 + 55:24 + 65:54]

Bach, Casals and The Six Suites for ‘Cello Solo
A groundbreaking interactive story in four volumes, by Steven Hancoff
Vol. 1 The life of J. Sebastian Bach
Vol. 2 The Legacy of J. Sebastian Bach
Vol. 3 Pablo Casals and the Six Suites for Solo 'Cello
Vol. 4 From Tragedy to Transcendence, The Six Bach Suites for 'Cello Solo
e-books available from iBooks

There seems to be something about guitarists who, once embarked on a recording project, allow the process of writing their booklet notes to get completely out of hand. Fernando Riscado Cordas’s The Poetic Guitar is one such case, and Steven Hancoff’s project of transcribing Bach’s six Suites for Cello Solo has resulted in no fewer than four interactive volumes of Bach, Casals and the Six Suites for 'Cello Solo which we will come to later.

Steven Hancoff’s previous recordings have been jazz-based, but he has lived with the Bach suites since the 1980s and, approaching his 60th birthday, finally seized the day to realise his dream, as should we all. He quite rightly describes his approach as the “art of creating a piece of guitar music out of a piece of cello music”, but his transcriptions have also gone a step further, adding harmonies in creating idiomatic guitar music. This takes us quite far beyond what might be considered ‘historically informed’ practice, so if you are a militant purist when it comes to Bach you might be better off leaving the room now before one too many bluesy notes hit you where you least expect it.

These arrangements do go beyond what might be termed ‘easy listening’, though they make for a pleasant sound which might serve well as background in a nice restaurant. I don’t mean this in a rude way. Good music often works in this fashion, and the mellow sound of the guitar in Bach’s music has a soulful effect. Aside from the occasional bump, Hancoff’s playing is smoothly effective. Complex voicing can take on an impressionistic quality, but for the most part the clarity of Bach’s polyphony is projected well in what must present the toughest of technical challenges. There is a steel-edge to the guitar sound which to my ears is distinctly American. This and Hancoff’s relaxed approach to rubati and touch, which is somehow closer to jazz/country picking than what you might expect to hear from a European classical guitarist, throws up a fascinating confluence of style and content which somehow works surprisingly well.

You may note that timings are a good deal longer than a typical cello performance of these suites, which would usually fit two CDs with ease. The addition of extra notes as opposed to Bach’s more suggestive harmonies under what is in essence a single melodic line means plenty of expressive traffic-jams, and the resonating quality of the guitar allows for a more spacious approach to performance. I won’t go too much into details, but this is what might be termed a ‘romantic’ set. Hancoff in this case is to Bach on the guitar what Busoni was to Bach on the piano.

We don’t normally guide readers directly to other websites, but if you go to then you should be able to find the sheet music or tablature for his arrangements so guitar players all over the world can try them for themselves. This site also has plenty of information about the ‘Bach Project’ in general, and there is a YouTube introduction to those interactive e-books.

The four volumes of Bach, Casals and The Six Suites for 'Cello solo can be found on iBooks, and to my relatively inexperienced eyes seem like very good examples of interactive books that can be downloaded onto computers of one kind or another. I sampled them on an iPad and found what I looked at to be a very enjoyable and interesting read. Hancoff has clearly spent very many hours – indeed many years of careful research into Bach’s life, volume one for instance going into detail about his background and childhood, youth and early career, and the periods in Weimar, C÷then and Leipzig with numerous quotes from a variety of sources. There is a chapter on ‘The Monumental Works’ and another of ‘Amazing Stories’, further ‘Intermezzos’ on a variety of topics including key wheels and The Art of Fugue, a final ‘Coda’ plus personal notes, a comprehensive collection of appendices, references bibliography, glossary and full index of images – and that’s just the first volume. Useful elements of this kind of text are that, instead of tiresome footnotes, key names or words are highlighted and you can gain snippets of information with just a touch. The whole thing is richly illustrated, and rather than being dryly academic there is a joyously eclectic mix of artwork and poetry to go along with contemporary reproductions and the central texts. These books are pretty ‘heavy’ in terms of memory space at around 1 Gb each, but I would say are easily worth every penny of their asking price.

Arrangements for Bach’s cello suites for guitar are not unique, and there is a recent recording by Michael Nicolella on the Gale Recordings label which is more classically conventional when compared to Hancoff. Daniel Estrem has previously recorded the suites on an 8-string guitar in a similar vein on the Magnatune label, and you might be able to find other recordings by the likes of Stanley Yates, Carlos Perez and Andreas von Wangenheim, the latter on the Arte Nova label. Steven Hancoff’s arrangements and performances stand out as being uniquely personal, and as such require something of a ‘try before you buy’ recommendation. I have nothing but admiration for his evident passion and commitment to J.S. Bach and the Cello Suites in particular however, and yes indeed, the world could use more people like Steven Hancoff.

Dominy Clements



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