Monday 17 May 2021

Side-stepping with deft elegance the issue of what instrument the music was written for, Andrew Wilder reinvents Bach's Lute Suites on classical guitar

Bach Complete lute music; Andrew Wilder

Bach Complete lute music; Andrew Wilder

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 14 May 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A young American classical guitarist in stylish and engaging transcriptions of the music Bach wrote for lute or lute-harpsichord

On this new digital release from classical guitarist Andrew Wilder we get the complete set of works which are regarded as being written by Johann Sebastian Bach for the lute, the Suite in G minor BWV 995, the Suite in E minor BWV 996, the Suite in C minor BWV 997, the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro BWV 998, the Prelude in C minor BWV 999, the Fugue in G minor BWV 1000 and the Suite in E Major BWV 1006a.

Now Bach did own a lute (there was a valuable one listed amongst his musical instruments after his death), and used the instrument as colouring in several works but whether he wrote any solo music for lute is debatable. It is worth quoting lutenist Nigel North on the matter, "Instead of labouring over perpetuating the idea that the so-called lute pieces of Bach are proper lute pieces I prefer to take the works for unaccompanied Violin or Cello and make them into new works for lute, keeping (as much as possible) to the original text, musical intention, phrasing and articulation, yet transforming them in a way particular to the lute so that they are satisfying to play and to hear."

Andrew Wilder

Also in Bach's possession at the time of his death were two gut-strung lute-harpsichords, and it is almost certainly for these that the music was written, especially as identification with the lute itself is something which seems to have come after his death.

The Suite in G minor BWV 995, is a transcription of the fifth Cello Suite, BWV 1011 and is marked Suite pour la Luth par J.S. Bach. The trouble with this is that it extendes down to a note which was not available on lutes commonly used in Leipzig. Also, from the layout of the work it is clear that Bach was working at the keyboard. The music exists in a lute tablature which dates from 1760 and which makes significant adaption of the original which must, however have seemed rather old-fashioned compared the the lute music of the period.  

The Suite in E minor, BWV 996, is subtitled by the copyist 'aufs Lauten werck' (referring to the lute-harpsichord) and stylistically the music has many similarities to keyboard music written before 1712. It is rather keyboard orientated and players often simplify the density, leading us to another point, if Bach did write these pieces for lute then he worked things out at a keyboard rather than using a lute and writing in lute tablature.  The Suite in C minor BWV 997 exists in several early copies (one perhaps by CPE Bach) where it is labelled for keyboard. Three of the movements were adapted into lute tablature in the 1740s, which might be where the confusion comes from, and at one point early scholars thought the piece might be for violin or oboe and continuo!

Prelude, Fugue, Allegro in E flat, BWV 998, comes from the mid-1740s and is titled Prelude pour la Lute ó Cembal, though this title is in a different hand than the music. Prelude in C minor BWV 999, is probably a keyboard work though it is playable on the lute. BWV 1006a is a copy of the Violin Partita BWV 1006 made sometime in late 1740s, but the key is impossible on the lute!

There are also adaptations of Bach's works by contemporary Leipzig lutenists, done in a style far more recognisably lute-orientated. Also, Bach had strong links with the lutenist composer Sylvius Leopold Weiss who spent four weeks in Leipzig in 1739. So Bach may have been experimenting with creating music for the lute, in the expectation that someone else would make the pieces work on the instrument and transcribe them into lute tablature. He was an inveterate transcriber of his own and other people's music after all. But this sort of half-hearted approach seems completely out of character.

What this means is that any exploration of Bach's lute music needs to be considered as simply that, an exploration, and we certainly should not feel that we should be too reverent in our treatment of the music. On this disc Andrew Wilder sidesteps all the issues with deft elegance, and gives us the music re-invented for classical guitar. He transposes four of the suites into keys more suitable for the classical guitar and plays the music very much in classical guitar style. These are unashamed transcriptions. Wilder's style is clear and elegant, and he successfully negotiates the denser movements, such as the Gigue from BWV 996, and makes them work on guitar. The music here does not sound like a lute, it is Bach played on the classical guitar.

Most of the music here is dance-based. Bach's suites are often indebted to the French suites of dance movements, and Wilder keeps that in mind. Its not that I want to be able to get up and dance to this music, but it is nice to have the dance forms present. He brings a nice darkness to some of the slower movements, such as the Sarabande from BWV 997, and at times takes things really deep into classical guitar territory. Wilder is giving us music played on and interpreted for the classical guitar, and I like that. He has thought through each piece, so that you would not notice that the originals were hardly idiomatic and his tempos fit with his other choices. The inner voices are clear, and the sustained lines are just that, along with the occasional but of showy bravura.

Wilder is a young guitarist from Boulder, Colorado both his parents are classical musicians. His studies included the Istituto Musicale Pareggiato Della Valle D’Aosta in Aosta, Italy, the Conservatorio Svizzera Italiana in Lugano, Switzerland, Columbus State University and University of Kentucky, along with private lessons and classes with Paul Galbraith at the Musik-Akademie in Basel, Switzerland.

This release is quite an achievement. Here is playing with distinct elegant presence, not too romantic in style but without the feeling of pecking the notes in emulation of earlier keyboards, and Wilder has a naturally mellow tone. Now I want to hear him in transcriptions of something like Bach's unaccompanied solo violin music.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) - Suite in G minor (arr. A minor) BWV 995
Johann Sebastian Bach - Suite in E minor BWV 996
Johann Sebastian Bach - Suite in C minor (arr. A minor) BWV 997
Johann Sebastian Bach - Prelude, Fugue and Allegro BWV 998
Johann Sebastian Bach - Prelude in C minor (arr. D minor) BWV 999
Johann Sebastian Bach - Fugue in G minor (arr. A minor) BWV 1000
Johann Sebastian Bach - Suite in E major BWV 1006a
Andrew Wilder (classical guitar)

Available from Spotify, Apple Music/iTunes, Amazon.

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