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Bach Bungarten MDG C

John Greene

Artistic Quality:

Sound Quality:

This is the third complete cycle of J.S. Bach’s sonatas and partitas for violin solo BWV 1001-1006 transcribed for a plucked instrument to be released within the last few years. Paul Galbraith’s transcription for his modified 12-string guitar was issued first in 1998 by Delos (3232). A year later Hopkinson Smith recorded his cycle for Astrée Naive (E8678) performing on a 13-course baroque lute. On this new MDG recording Frank Bungarten offers his ideas performing on a modern guitar. All are beautiful; all are passionately performed by artists who obviously regard their respective undertakings as labors of love; and all remind us again and again how inspired and sublime this most perfect music for solo instrument is, however transcribed.

So what are the differences besides the instrumentation? Of the three, Galbraith generally chooses the swiftest tempos, which when combined with his cello-like performing posture alludes more to the way we’re accustomed to hearing the works performed on violin. Galbraith obviously is familiar with the capabilities of this instrument of his own invention–enough to describe his set as the most “virtuosic” of the three. Smith’s acount has much going for it too. For one, Smith’s is the most historically informed cycle, since he performs on a copy of a period lute, and this often-intimate music admittedly benefits from its almost clavichord-like sound. Smith’s performances also are the less mimetic of the three, in the sense that he seems to be interested less in imitating what a violin can make of this music and more with what a lute can. In turn, Smith also takes many more liberties than Galbraith and Bungarten. Listen, for example, to the way he enters the first sonata BWV 1001. Rather than simply imitating the violin’s sharp rise, he begins quietly, slowly allowing the integrity of each string to be heard as only a plucked instrument can.

Which now brings us to this MDG set. Frank Bungarten is a fine guitarist whose transcriptions fastidiously attempt to “let the music speak for itself”–meaning that the only liberties he takes are technical ones that make it possible for this violin music to be performed on a guitar. Listen for instance to the way he articulates the final Allegro of Sonata No. 2. Here Bungarten’s imaginative use of note for note chordal progressions sustains the dance with remarkable clarity. Equally impressive is Bungarten’s clever use of shading and dynamics, particularly in the Tempo di Borea movement of Partita No. 1. The elongated lines that establish the opening theme are given more than enough emphasis without sacrificing any of the quieter intricacy of the inner details.

Bungarten’s deft, expertly executed performances certainly are the most straightforward–which is not to say uninflected–of the group. I’m sure that most of us already have at least one recorded cycle of Bach’s sonatas and partitas performed on violin. I’m equally sure that far fewer listeners possess one of these fine sets of transcriptions. It’s a pity, because to hear this music rethought and applied by such capable musicians as Galbraith, Smith, and Bungarten truly heightens the miracle of it. MDG’s sound and overall presentation are as fine as ever. Bungarten also provides informative notes in the multilingual booklet.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Hopkinson Smith (Astrée Naive)

J.S. BACH - Sonatas & Partitas for violin solo BWV 1001-1006 (transcr. for guitar by Frank Bungarten)

    Soloists: Frank Bungarten (guitar)

  • Record Label: MDG - 305 1028-2
  • Medium: CD

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