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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Four Lute Suites
Suite in G minor, BWV 995 [23:53]
Suite (Partita) in C minor BWV 997 [21:23]
Suite (Partita) in E major BWV 1006 [19:40]
Suite in E minor BWV 996 [16:46]
Franz Halász (guitar)
rec. 2017/18, Großer Saal, Hochschule für Musik und Theater München, Germany
Reviewed in SACD stereo.
BIS BIS-2285 SACD [82:45]

There is apparently some controversy as to whether Bach’s lute suites were actually composed for the lute or plucked instruments in general, but as they are clearly so effective on the modern guitar they have become core repertoire for concert performers. The four lute suites recorded here have been arranged by Franz Halász (BWV 995 and 996) and Ansgar Krause (BWV 997 and 1006), and as Tilman Hoppstock points out in the booklet notes, were not planned as a cycle, coming from different periods in Bach’s life, ranging from “youthful elan (BWV 996) by way of the zenith of his artistic creativity (BWV 995, 1006a) to serene maturity (BWV 997).”

Recorded in a deliciously resonant acoustic but with plenty of close-up detail, this is a guitar recording to relish at every level. Halász doesn’t ‘baroque-up’ his playing, but manages to synthesise a timeless ancient feel with what feels like contemporary expressive weight. Take the Courante of BWV 995, which has an almost Renaissance dance feel, and contrast it with the gorgeous sustain Halász puts into the subsequent Sarabande, which is both rich and austere, the counterpoint held in space through the resonance of the strings and creating something deeply modern and at times bordering on the abstract, also almost by way of C.P.E. Bach, if that makes any sense.

BWV 997 survives in numerous copies but not in Bach’s original manuscript, and this is one of those works for which it is impossible to prove exactly for what kind of instrument it was composed. Halász makes light work of the complexities in this piece, and that magnificent second movement Fugue, while inevitably slightly compromised by the physical nature of the guitar at certain corners, is beautifully voiced in this recording. The ‘sighing’ C minor of BWV 997 is set against the exuberance of the Partita BWV 1006, best known as played on the violin. The booklet notes speculate that this arrangement might have been made as a gift for visiting lutenist Silvius Leopold Weiss, or possibly Johann Kropffgans, both of whom were guests in Bach’s house in the 1730s. The tricky key of E major is transposed into a more accommodating D major in Krause’s arrangement, but the luminous effect of this masterpiece is superbly maintained.

The programme concludes with BWV 996, one of Bach’s earlier works, and the toccata influence of Frescobaldi and Froberger is clear from the outset in that dramatic Prelude. Having this as the last piece means we are left with the famous Bourée and Gigue in our ears, both played with technical brilliance and subtle aplomb by Halász on this well-filled disc.

Other guitarists have of course taken up the challenge of recording these works, perhaps the best known of these being John Williams on Sony Classical (see review with links to other alternatives). Williams is recorded in a more intimate and dry space, the detail of his playing very much up to this kind of microscopic examination. Williams has his own special way with vibrato, which creates a different kind of expression, but one which by no means sounds dated to my ears. He takes the Fugue in BWV 997 with less expressive rubato than Halász but again, this is all a case of personal swings and roundabouts, and it seems wrong to be picking winners in this case. What is true is that Franz Halász’s recording can stand on its own in this field, and it’s not hard to imagine this becoming many people’s favourite.

Dominy Clements


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