Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cello Suite No. 1 BWV1007 (arr. electric guitar, Sam Russell)
Sam Russell (electric guitar)
rec. MTR Studios, Harrow, UK, 7-9 March 2016
Self-released [19:04]

There’s something of an ‘I told you so’ about this CD, having recently reviewed Petrit «eku’s set of the Bach cello suites transcribed for guitar where I observed “guitarists seem to be an independent and free-spirited lot, preferring to ‘roll their own’ where they can”. This reflected the many different recordings of these suites on all kinds of guitars, each one by and large using its own transcription. Regarding «eku’s use of the Valter Dešpalj version, I noted that unless someone follows in «eku’s footsteps, his recording “will be yet another one-off”. While it’s still far too early to say that's the case, we now have yet another variation: Sam Russell’s of the first cello suite on electric guitar and, yes, using his own transcription.

Sam Russell is a UK-based professional guitar player and teacher, who specialises in metal and neo-classical rock music. The raison d'Ítre of this CD is that Russell learnt the Bach suite to play at his mother’s wedding, and some time later decided to record it. That only makes for a 19-minute disc, but it’s otherwise nicely produced in digipak style with full artwork and essential details about the recording and production. Russell is also the impresario and copyright holder, and those seeking further information (or to purchase the CD) are referred to his website – more on that later.

The first thing that struck me about the sound of this CD is the artificial reverb. Now it would be easy to say there’s too much, or it shouldn’t be there at all, but I know many will find its effect pleasing. It is without doubt ‘unnatural’, and together with the tonal signature of Russell’s guitar, although recorded acoustically, the sound as presented is very much in the electronic domain. That is, a realisation of Bach’s music more akin to the synthesiser world of Wendy Carlos. To be clear, I make this association as an observation, with no criticism intended.

The next thing I noticed was that Russell’s playing, while digitally accurate, is also rather metronomic with fairly predictable modulation and ornamentation. I think you can see where I’m going here. Given that the first cello suite is probably the most popular of the six, I googled for synthesised versions and found a plethora of them, for just about any instrument you can name. Some sound impressively ‘real’, so much so in fact they might appear as good as, or better, than Russell’s interpretation. To be plain, I believe that the ‘competition’ to Russell’s recording exists more in the online world than it does in the classical guitar world. To be equally plain, I don’t think Russell challenges anybody in the latter.

Having said that, I certainly don’t decry Russell’s efforts in what he’s done, if by through his own playing or his published transcription of the suite he draws a new audience to J S Bach. I do wish, though, he’d been a little more generous to the composer on his website, rather than just lauding his own endeavours. Apart from the vacuously feel-good “Bach’s music is very personal”, it’s all about Russell’s apparently super-human sacrifice of three percent of his life to learn the 6,528 notes to achieve his “I can do that” moment. Let’s of course ignore for the moment all the cellists, and classical guitarists, who have all six suites under their skin. Reminds me of a fairly embittered Sir Charles Mackerras once remarking on the vast gulf in training between classical and pop musicians; this rather illustrates his point.

In sum, Sam Russell’s electric guitar version of Bach’s first cello suite may be of interest to classical completists for its curiosity value; I really couldn’t recommend it to general collectors for any fresh insights. Its real value however may be in introducing Bach to the uninitiated of Russell’s followers – it’s more than adequate for that, and more strength to his arm there. I see on his website he’s also transcribed the second and third suites, presumably with the full six in mind. If he’s planning to record those, he’s got an awful lot more notes to learn!
Des Hutchinson