This is classical guitarist Slava Grigoryan’s first solo album in 15 years, and his first all-Bach album. It is also the first solo album on which he plays a baritone guitar, even though he’s owned one for 12 years. But as he notes in the booklet accompanying this release of the first three: “The moment I touched this beast [the baritone guitar], I thought of Bach’s Cello Suites.” The baritone guitar is tuned a fifth lower than the standard classical guitar. Bach’s Cello Suites are thus able to be performed in their original keys.
Grigoryan plays a Jim Redgate double-top baritone from 2011; he also chose the wonderful acoustic of South Australia’s concert venue UKARIA in which to record. The key to his interpretations can perhaps be found in something else he says in his booklet note: “The simplicity, the elegance, the structure and the spirit [of this music] are simply breathtaking.”
In other words, Grigoryan is less interested in notions of historical performance practice than lutenenists such as Nigel North or Hopkinson Smith might be – although his approach is clearly informed by such notions. Rather, he performs this music as a modern cellist might, alive to the timeless, abstract qualities of Bach’s music while luxuriating in the mellow tone and rich resonance of the baritone guitar. Ornamentation is kept to a minimum; a cantabile, linear phrasing and subtle contrapuntal suggestiveness are privileged over rewriting of bass lines, excessive overlapping of lines or filling-out of harmonies.
There are guitaristic changes of tone colour, such as in the dramatic Courante of the D Minor Suite; there is a meditative, even melancholic spaciousness in movements such as the sarabandes and allemandes; there is a wonderful use of rubato in the freer preludes; there is a fierce volubility in the courantes and gigues, and a grace and sweetness in the menuets and bourées aided by some tastefully détaché articulation. In short, Grigoryan’s Bach has been well-worth the wait. Thank goodness the second installment is being recorded this year (2017).