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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
French Suite No.5 in D major, BWV816 (orig. G major, arr. Peter and Zoltán Katona) [17:16]
English Suite No.3 in D minor, BWV808 (orig. G minor, arr. Peter and Zoltán Katona) [17:50]
Prelude, Fugue and Allegro in D major, BWV998 (orig. E flat major) [12:03]
Suite in E minor, BWV 996 (arr. Peter Katona) [15:15]
Peter and Zoltán Katona (guitars)
rec. September 2012, Doopsgezinde Kerk, Deventer. DDD

The Daily Telegraph called the brothers Peter and Zoltán Katona “the classical world’s best known guitar duo”. Such fame, once earned, might occasionally induce the attitude “now we can do what we want”, and sometimes that’s what they do. After all, they included percussion and electric guitars in their de Falla album – a questionable but definitely interesting decision.

Here we have a programme of Bach transcriptions made by the brothers themselves, and it is pure quality. This is a thoughtful, balanced and beautiful recording, where everything seems to stand in the right place.

The Fifth French Suite, originally written in G major, was transcribed by the arrangers into D. It starts with a cool and fluent Allemande. As so often in Bach’s major-key Allemandes, there are blues behind the smile. The performance of the lively Courante is filigree, with all the layers clearly visible. The soaring Sarabande is gentle and full of loving warmth reminiscent of the Air on a G String. It is followed by an elegant Gavotte and Bourrée, then a meditative Loure with echoes and reflections, and finally a joyous, colourful Gigue. The latter is busy like a babbling brook, an infectiously inextinguishable dance. The performers display light-hearted simplicity, natural-sounding cheerfulness and expressivity without pressure.

The Third English Suite — G minor, here transcribed to D minor — is painted in colder hues. It starts with a fluid Prelude that runs smoothly and confidently. This is followed by a wistful expressive Allemande. The Courante is serious; the Sarabande static and pensive. A pair of lively Gavottes follows, the first one plaintive and agitated, the second smiling and assertive, before we enter the vast troubled sea of the Gigue. The performance combines elegance with smart emotion, it is not all wide and even. On the other hand there is no forced sentiment. The result is solemn and beautiful.

It is not known whether Prelude, Fugue and Allegro were supposed to stand as an independent composition, or were planned to be part of a bigger suite. The calm and friendly Prelude is followed by a long serene Fugue, which is smooth, relaxed and full of soft light. The Courante-like Allegro is insistent and positive, and brings Protestant thoughts about the joys of devoted labour. The performance is inspired, with subtle shading and good leading of voices.

The E-minor Suite is airy and cool. The Praeludio starts with a pregnant Passagio that leads into a cold dance (Presto). A hushed Allemande is followed by a dry, courtly Courante. Sarabande is like a prayer and sounds antique and almost static. A gallant Bourrée leads into a swirling Gigue, which reminds me of one of those optical illusions where colour-striped circles rotate in different directions. The performance is sensitive and balanced.

Overall, the playing is technically excellent and effortless, without microscopic pauses before difficult chords and without extra-musical squeaks and hisses when the fingers move along the strings. The guitar is naturally an instrument of chords, but in this performance it truly sings.

The impression left by these works is different from when played on a modern piano; it feels more authentic. This may be because the guitar sounds much like the lute of Bach’s time, while the modern piano has a definitely non-authentic 'signature'. If compared to the harpsichord, I would still prefer the guitar interpretation; I find it easier to listen to in the long run, due to its larger expressive means and less uniform sound.

The two brothers play with care and confidence, with expressive intonation, letting Bach’s wisdom shine through. Much of the music here is decorative in nature, and the musicians do not try to turn it into something it isn’t, by artificially squeezing deep emotions out of elegant dances. Yet they don’t make the music sound bland and simple either.

The recording quality is very good, full and friendly. The liner notes are in English, German and French, but do not really say much. I will definitely return to this album when I feel that I want to hear some good Bach. There are no eccentric decisions or strange choices in the interests of being different. There are many moments of palpable beauty. What else can one wish for?

Oleg Ledeniov