Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Violin sonatas and partitas (transcribed for vibraphone)
Sonata I, BWV 1001 [16:40]
Partita I, BWV 1002 [30:27]
Sonata II, BWV 1003 [21:50]
Partita II, BWV 1004 [27:41]
Sonata III, BWV 1005 [20:11]
Partita III, BWV 1006 [15:48]
Ja Hsieh (vibraphone)
rec. St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, San Bruno, California, USA, date not given
Private release [68:55 + 64:44]

I often find that transcriptions help concentrate the ear and assist in evaluating a piece of music we think we know well —an aural yardstick applied in a new way. At best it helps in hearing the original afresh and at worst it does nothing for the work apart from reconfirming the composer’s original intention was correct. Sometimes it makes one think that the transcription is as valid as the original and that it can be enjoyed as much. A good case in point is Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition which I grew up believing had been written for orchestra before I discovered that it was Ravel who orchestrated it. It was a revelation to hear it played as a piano work as originally intended. I enjoy each version on its own merits for there is something that each brings that makes it absolutely right while listening. For me that is what Taiwanese/American musician Ja Hsieh has achieved here with a frankly stunning performance. It is quite staggering to hear what he can achieve with effectively only four ‘fingers’ which is what his two mallets in each hand equate to as opposed to what can be achieved by a violinist whose bow can so easily slide from one note to another. One might think that pace would suffer as a result of having only four ‘fingers’ to use and the time it takes to select each note. In fact Ja Hsieh’s dexterity coupled with his undoubted expertise on his chosen instrument eliminate this problem and the music flows in the most scintillatingly gorgeous way. Just how amazing this young musician is can be gleaned from the way he tackles the Double Presto from Partita I in which he is able to cover so many notes in breathtaking fashion.

I loved the way that the opening Adagio from the first sonata seemed like an overture to the best known part of it, the Fuga which just made me smile and nod my head. I was hooked knowing I was going to have a great time for the next two hours. Many might find they can’t take all on offer in a single sitting but as a reviewer I’m used to doing so. In whatever way one chooses to listen to the discs the listener will have a wonderful time and I guarantee they will never listen to the original in the same way again. One thing it proves, though we already know this, is that Bach transcends time and is as relevant today as he ever was. One might think that a modern instrument like a vibraphone cannot do justice to such masterworks. These discs prove that it can and does with Bach’s bell-like clarity coming across in a new and thoroughly beguiling way. Whatever purists might say this works just as Jacques Loussier’s famous trio recordings of Bach as seen through a jazz prism did and they can be assured that no notes have been sacrificed here. I like to think that Bach himself would have approved as he was a supreme innovator and would have relished hearing how centuries after he lived we can still find new ways of having his genius reach us.

This is Ja Hsieh’s debut recording though he has appeared on other CDs and has been performing for more than a decade to great and deserved acclaim. As a percussionist he has a great deal to go at but his choice of launching with this repertoire is both fascinating and smart since it is unique, though I’d love to hear him on some percussion concerto discs. I’m confident we’ll be hearing a lot more from him in future.

Steve Arloff
Frankly stunning.