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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Complete Cello Suites - Transcribed for violin
Suite No. 1 BWV 1007 [14:01]
Suite No. 2 BWV 1008 [15:39]
Suite No. 3 BWV 1009 [17:50]
Suite No. 4 BWV 1010 [18:50]
Suite No. 5 BWV 1011 [18:43]
Suite No. 6 BWV 1012 [23:04]
Johnny Gandelsman (violin)
rec. 2019, Oktaven Studio, Mount Vernon, New York
IN A CIRCLE RECORDS ICR013 [47:30 + 60:37]

When writing about the music of JS Bach, it is easy to lapse into a state of reverence. Given Bach’s total commitment to the Christian concept of deity and how this is reflected in much of his music, such a reaction is not hard to understand. Some have even claimed that within the scores of his instrumental music are cryptic reference to, and symbolisms of, God. Guitarist Paul Galbraith’s personal impression is that the ‘6 Solo’- Bach’s name for the six violin Partitas and Sonatas - is an instrumental Gospel story in triptych form, telling of the Birth, Passion and Resurrection of Christ.

Among the iconic treasures from Bach’s instrumental repertory are the so-called Cello Suites, BWV 1007-1012 for unaccompanied instrument. There is controversy about exactly for which instrument they were composed when they were written, and no autograph manuscript exists. The four extant original, handwritten scores of the music, including one by Anna Magdalena, Bach’s wife, all exhibit differences, which in part explains the wide diversity of approaches to the way the music is played.
From the time of composition, it took two centuries for the suites to be recognized and appreciated as the musical treasures they are then finally widely recorded; today, that embrace is unequivocal. Not only are they widely recorded on cello, but on a variety of instruments including viola, guitar, bass, banjo and mandolin, among others.

The transcription and arrangement of original music are frequently criticised and frowned upon by purists. Some justify the practice by citing Bach as a master at repurposing his music. There are examples too numerous to reference, but in the context of the Cello Suites, No. 5 is an arrangement of his Lute Suite in G minor. The epiphany conferred by the recording under review upon the music negates any need for such rationalization and justification.

Despite the extensive arrangements and recordings of the Cello Suites for other instruments, until very recently there were none for violin. In 2018, Baroque violinist Rachel Podger was the first to record the entire Suites for solo violin. Such an undertaking is not without its challenges outside the normal technical and musical execution parameters. To accommodate the violin, original music for Suites 1-5 was transcribed an octave and a fifth above the original. The Sixth Suite, originally written for a 5-string cello, poses pitch challenges for the normal violin. To overcome this, it appears Podger played the music an octave higher, and then added the unplayable missing lower notes on her viola, post recording, by electronic dubbing.  Careful listening to her performance of the Sixth Suite proves this to be a totally seamless process, and a viable solution, unless one wanted to play the Suite live.

While the recording under review is not accompanied by liner notes, there is ample information on the Internet about violinist Johnny Gandelsman. Currently 42 years of age, he was born in Moscow and brought up in Russia and Israel. Commencing the violin aged five, he is from a musical family: his father is Professor of viola at Michigan State University and his mother is a pianist. In the 90s, he moved to the USA to study at the Curtis Institute. In 2017, he made his first commercial recording, the Bach Partitas and Sonatas for unaccompanied violin, on a recording label which he established in 2008. He currently lives in Brooklyn with his partner and two children.

Aside from the current programme genre, he has had a wide and eclectic involvement with violin music. He is a member of the Brooklyn Rider string quartet, whose repertory includes unusual and contemporary music from outside traditional Western Art Music. This group has collaborated with artists such as banjo player Bela Fleck, and Anne Sophie von Otter singing music by Kate Bush, Elvis Costello and Sting. He has also toured with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble.

Having listened to him playing Bach’s ‘6 Solo’ music, one realizes that this highly artistic musician can also be one who takes an unorthodox approach. He is inspired by folk violinists such as the Irish fiddler, Martin Hayes, and is drawn to a ‘direct and very honest expression from the folk tradition, incorporating very little, if any, vibrato, small amounts of bow, but a lot of articulation, staying rooted in the feel of the dance’. Understandably, his wide musical experiences and such performance philosophies impact, quite audibly, on the way he plays the Cello Suites. While the nomenclature for movements within the Suites was, in the main, conveniently taken from the names of dances of the time, his renditions makes one conjecture that maybe Bach intended them as accompaniment for dances.

Gandelsman is one of the few violinists who perform the Sonatas and Partitas, and the Cello Suites for violin live. Not often found in the classical world, the five-string violin is common among folk musicians. Because he uses this instrument for Suite No 6, and is the first violinist to do so on recording, he is not restricted in the same way that Podger may be in playing the entire Suites live. He has performed both works live, without intermission. Depending on dialogue, each takes about two hours, with the Cello Suites being ‘kinder to his body’.

There will always be critics and purists who object to such musical innovation. What about the loss of idiomatic sound in transcription, and gravitas in higher pitched instruments?  We might also ask how well the recorded violin version by Gandelsman addresses these issues. Preoccupied with the possibility that the violin could make the music sound relatively thin and cold, the producers decided that, on this occasion, the master studio recording would be made on tape, a medium capable of adding warmth to the sound. This recording is also offered in vinyl format, and some may claim that provides additional warmth. All things considered, any loss in transcription is compensated for by the gain in the new performance aspects which this excellent recording offers.

Gandelsman plays a 2008 Samuel Zygmuntowicz violin in Suites 1-5, and for Suite Six a five-string ‘Snow’ violin by Chinese luthier Xueping Hu.  He uses a transitional bow and Passione strings.

Zane Turner



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