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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Cello Suites BWV1007-12 (arr. guitar, Valter Dešpalj)
Petrit Çeku (guitar)
rec. Auditorio San Francisco, Ávila, Spain; 30 November–2 December 2014, and 23-25 March 2015
DDD+DSD, reviewed in surround
EUDORA EUD-SACD-1602 SACD [58:57 + 74:31]

I’m probably not alone, but I first heard a Bach unaccompanied cello suite on the guitar. It was an LP of Alirio Diaz playing the complete third suite, as well as a selection of other Bach works arranged for guitar. The LP’s liner notes, written by Christopher Nupen, point out that Bach’s own manuscripts for lute are his arrangements of works better known on other instruments, and it is not always clear which was written first. The fifth cello suite, for example, exists in Bach’s hand for the lute only, the cello version being in Anna Magdalena’s manuscript. The purists might say “OK, then play them on the lute”, but for practical performing purposes, including the projection of sound, the guitar is surely a legitimate vehicle for this music.

There is the issue, though, of suitable transcriptions for guitar, even from the lute, and that is where some contention, and many variations, arise. Full or partial arrangements have been published by Stanley Yates, John Duarte and Andrés Segovia, among others, and of the currently available recordings, Steven Hancoff (review), Michael Nicolella and Andreas von Wangenheim (review) all play their own transcriptions. Given these manifold differences, doing a comparative review would be fraught and rather pointless, so I’m glad to say I’ve been let off the hook somewhat with this new recording of the Bach suites by its arranger, Valter Dešpalj, who is professor of cello at music academies in Zagreb and Liechtenstein. In an interview provided with the liner notes, Dešpalj makes it clear that he doesn’t beg close analysis of his new transcriptions, and invokes the Hindemith paradigm that “the ear is the ultimate judge”. If Petrit Çeku’s realisation of Dešpalj’s work can be evaluated on this select basis, that’s fine with me.

It’s worth, though, noting some key elements of Dešpalj’s approach that would inform readers’ impressions of what to expect. At its root are the greater polyphonic possibilities of the guitar; that is, to add or change notes, largely in a chordal structure, to better fit the legato lines of the cello to the staccato nature of the guitar. These changes mostly affect the bass line where, due to the non-polyphonic nature of the cello, the bass frequently disappears and reappears in the original scores. To quote Dešpalj: “It may be said that this effect of a certain austerity in the bass line is part of the charm of the Suites when we perform them on the cello. However, the guitar ... has its own requirements, so that what sounds restrained on the cello may sound ‘amputated’ on the guitar. Therefore, I tried to realize the bass in a logical continuity.” He stresses that this is done judiciously, not always adding a bass line if it appears to cloud Bach’s harmonic intentions.

Çeku is a graduate of the Zagreb Academy of Music where Dešpalj holds one of his academic posts. Considered a rising star in the classical guitar field, Çeku has already released a recital on Naxos, and without doubt this traversal of the Bach suites in Dešpalj’s arrangement will further his reputation. There is, I have to admit, a quite different feel about this music in its transcribed form – I would go so far as to call it transfigured. While I cannot imagine life without the cello originals, I also believe life is not complete without the guitar transcriptions. Obviously, the nature and timbre of the two instruments account for much of this divided feeling – the stark and soulful cello against the brighter, jauntier guitar – but the expressiveness in the music remains. While one cannot deny the guitar’s lighter touch overall, movements such as the sarabandes lose none of their stateliness and solemnity. Dešpalj keeps to his word with chordal and harmonic structures which simply sound ‘right’, nothing drawing attention to itself as too little or too much, and ornamentation that is discreet and unobtrusive. Çeku delivers with playing that is beautifully sprung and finely wrought throughout, with the fast passagework clean and sharp. If Dešpalj is indeed challenging me to use my ears to judge the success of his work, I can only endorse it without reservation, as also I endorse Çeku as its immaculate messenger and embodiment.

I should however make some practical observations about Çeku’s performance. His sound is quite small and intimate, some might say introspective and thoughtful, which can give the impression of a private audience. Within that context, however, his dynamic scaling is entirely appropriate. I’ve never heard a quiet classical guitarist, though, and some might find Çeku’s extraneous noises a little disconcerting, including what appears to be raspy breathing, almost continuously present. I found the ideal listening volume to be where such intrusions were not bothersome.

Rather contradicting Çeku’s small sound is the nearly speaker-to-speaker image of his guitar as recorded. If, as the session photos in the liner notes suggest, the current fashion of microphones in phased array was used, it’s a fairly predictable result. In surround sound, the image only gets bigger. For a reality check, I re-visited my recently reviewed disc of Franz Halász’s Spanish recital on BIS, and heard something far more believable. Reality and high fidelity aside, though, these things ultimately become a matter of taste. Çeku’s instrument certainly sounds like a guitar, and a very good one – a Ross Gutmeier, in fact.

In arriving at a recommendation here, history suggests something of a dilemma. For as much as I might want to say “this is the one”, particularly concerning Dešpalj’s work, guitarists seem to be an independent and free-spirited lot, preferring to “roll their own” where they can. If no-one else takes up the Dešpalj arrangement, the Çeku recording will be yet another one-off. I hope others do embrace it, because purely as guitar repertoire it is so good that, whether or not you know the Bach cello suites, it sounds truly to the manner born. As it stands, of course, Çeku’s superb performance should do all the selling.

Des Hutchinson



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