Nail shredding and thumb blistering are just some of the perils to be avoided when recording a new ABC Classics album.

Around the age of 12, I started working on some of Bach’s Lute Suites. A few movements were compulsory competition pieces, I recall, so that’s how I was introduced to Bach for the first time. It was a very different language for me; very hard to understand the endless movement. I remember being hypnotised and not really understanding it all. At that age I was mostly playing lots of generic Spanish and South American music – not necessarily simple, but very natural on the guitar. Bach was a brand new world.

After I’d finished school and moved to Europe, guitar presenters and promoters who were booking me would often ask for a lute suite to be in the programme, so I needed to have a few up my sleeve. What appeals to me about Bach in particular is how so much of his music has been adapted, not just during his time but over all the years since. There seems to be a very open mind about this, which is wonderful as there are so many different ways of expressing the same music on a whole variety of instruments.


Grigoryan recording for ABC Classics at the Ngeringa

My latest project is unusual. I’ve arranged the Cello Suites for what I believe is a completely original instrument – a baritone guitar – which I’ve never recorded on before. I bought myself a baritone 12 years ago, and the first time I held it I remember playing a few notes of the First Cello Suite. I knew then that I wanted to play those works on this instrument. As usual, it took a very long time for the project to actually happen.

The beauty of the baritone is that it’s tuned a fifth below a regular guitar, which allows me to play all the Cello Suites in the original keys. The works have been arranged for guitar countless times but they’re always transposed and they sound very different. Because of the sustain of the regular guitar there are often embellishments and lots of extra notes have been added. The baritone is a totally different beast; it’s a really big guitar and the sustain and resonance is incredible. The amazing thing is just how naturally the Cello Suites sit under the fingers in these keys on the baritone; I’ve been able to stick to a very pure transcription.

We are recording the first three Suites now and are going to do the second half next year. We’re recording up at Ngeringa, which is an absolute jewel among Australian concert venues, and was opened last year. Ulrike Klein, who’s a wonderful friend to the arts here in South Australia, commissioned and built the venue on the grounds of her property, which also happens to be a fantastic winery. It’s a perfect venue – 240 seats, lots of timber and stone, and an absolutely gorgeous acoustic. The setting is incredibly beautiful. You can see Mount Barker from the seats. Lots of live concerts have been broadcast from there, but this is the first studio recording.

We’re taking it slowly and easily. I have to be a little bit wary because the baritone has much thicker strings than my regular guitar so my nails get affected a lot more dramatically. There’s the potential for a bit of blistering happening, so I’m trying to condition myself as well as I can without overdoing it. I’ll certainly have to pace myself over the four days we have for recording.

The baritone has thicker strings than my regular guitar so nails get affected a lot more

My first introduction to the suites on cello was the Anner Bylsma recordings, such dynamic, rustic versions. I’d like to use the word feral, but in the best possible way. Pieter Wispelwey is very different but you can see the parallels. I love Yo-Yo Ma’s versions too. I also adore what Chris Thile does with the Sonatas and the Partitas on the mandolin – his sensibility of the groove and the kind of rhythmic pulse he generates – so I certainly hope I can capture some of that.

How would I like the recording to come out? That’s a good question. I feel so strongly about this music. When I’m working with students, I’m always telling them it’s important to imagine you wrote this music yourself and be as proud of it as you possibly can. To connect with an audience you have to imagine Bach’s ideas are your ideas. That way it becomes so much more believable. I definitely plan to approach it from that perspective, and I really hope that in my own small way I will be able to pay tribute to all those other brilliant interpretations of Bach.


Slava Grigoryan’s new Bach CD is released this month on ABC Classics