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Bach: Cello Suites - Petrit Çeku

Bach: Cello Suites - Petrit Çeku

Eudora Records  EUD-SACD-1602 (2 discs)

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Instrumental


Bach: Cello Suites (arr. Valter Dešpalj)

Petrit Çeku (guitar)


First prizewinner of the prestigious Parkening International Guitar Competition and Pittaluga International Classical Guitar Competition, Petrit Çeku is regarded as one of the greatest guitarists of his generation and his exquisite sensibility and expressiveness have attracted and engaged audiences worldwide.

Bach cello suites have become a monument and are often revisited by cellists and guitarist, but in this recording, Çeku gives an amazing rendition of these works in the extraordinary arrangement of cellist Valter Despalj.

Recorded in the spacious and fantastic acoustic of the 13th Century Spanish church of San Francisco, in Ávila, Spain, Petrit Çeku’s vision of Bach’s suites is very personal, seductive, nuanced yet passionate: a wonderful revelation.

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Review by John Miller - April 6, 2016

J.S. Bach's Six Suites for Solo Cello (BWV 1007-12), one of his most highly revered works, is only attributed to him. There is no available signed manuscript bearing his autograph and no reliable signed copy. However, there are facsimile copies of the Six Cello Suites, believed to have been made by Bach's second wife Anna Magdalena. Hers is one of four manuscript copies of the Suites, and they are missing performance instructions. The Suite No. 5 in C Minor is the only suite for which a Bach autograph still exists. This is the Suite in G minor BWV 995, certainly by Bach. Like the other Cello Suites it was probably written just before 1720, in Bach's employment for the Prince of Cothen. BWV 995 was thought for some time to be a transcription for lute of the Cello Suite No. 5, BWV 1011, but now it has been shown that it is unplayable note for note on the lute.

The Six Suites for Solo Cello were long considered to be exercises for students of the cello "da gamba", i.e. between the legs, but now musicologists have produced some evidence that a larger version of the viola, held under the chin (viola da spalla) was the instrument Bach had in mind. These uncertainties, lack of performance instructions and the built-in virtuosity meant that there was little interest in the Suites until around 1900, when Spain's familiar guitarist Pablo Casals discovered a second-hand copy of the score. He was enthralled, and subsequently spent much of his career polishing his own recitals of the Suites and encouraging audiences and music students to listen to and play the marvellous music he had "discovered" (see "The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece, Hardcover" – 23 Feb 2009 by Eric Siblin). The immense popularity of the Bach Cello Suites nowadays is largely due to Casals' playing world concerts introducing the Cello Suites to hosts of musicians, recordists and general public. Every aspiring professional cellist nowadays feels they have to reach the summit of their Everest with a recording or acclaimed live concert featuring the Six Suites.

Given the popularity and great respect garnered by BWV 1007-12, it is no wonder that musicians, not cellists, should "want a piece of the cake". Thus there is now an astonishing set of transcripts, including violin, viola, double bass, viola da gamba, theorbo, mandolin, piano, marimba, classical guitar, recorder, flute, electric bass, horn, saxophone, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, euphonium, tuba, ukulele, and charango. I would love to hear the Tuba!

Arrangements or Transcriptions (the latter attempting to adapt as accurately as possible) of the Six Suites for the Guitar are numerous (including arrangements of only a few of the Suites, a common task for great guitarists such as Segovia, Pepe Romero, John Duarte and Güran Söllscher). Some of these made their own transcriptions, but others used published ones, from such transcriptors as Stanley Yates (1997) and Andreas von Wangenheim (1999-2007). For this recording by Eudora, world-renowned guitarist Petrit Çeku from Albania has adopted the wonderful arrangement by cellist Valter Dešpalj from Croatia, who previously had arranged Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. Çeku introduces his own perspective of an arrangement of the Six Cello Suites at the beginning of the booklet, and follows that with an extensive quote from a interview in a Croation Guitar magazine (2010) of a discussion between Valter Dešpalj with another renowned guitarist Darko Petrinjak. That gives very helpful light on the philosophy of making such an arrangement, and also outlines the technical and musical issues of carrying over Bach's intentions and accomplishments in the Cello version to a guitar version.

Çeku's playing in the gently helpful Spanish ambience of Auditorio San Francisco, Ávila gripped me from his first few bars. His obvious love for Bach's music brings a self-effacing purity of tone from his six-string guitar; gracious, elegant, endearing, with perfect control of dynamics and an understanding of German Baroque style. The bass notes, less dense and impressive than on the cello, are beautifully matched to the higher registers of the guitar. Bach's ingenious way of making the mind hear polyphony and chordal harmonies at once from only single lines is very ingenious and is made to work very well on the guitar. From the opening quietly undulating arpeggios and aching soulfulness of the First Suite's Prelude to the final Gigue of the 6th Suite (which Casals saw as a "ceiling-spinning jig full of staggering merriment, the sort of earthy music scratched out by a medieval tavern fiddle"r), Çeku's characterisations, flying fingers of virtuosity and clear fluidity of thought sound almost as if all the Six Suites were played in a single recording session.

I have already put this 2-disc album into my list of Records of the Year. The original recording format is DSD256 (11.289MHz) in 5.0 or Stereo. HiRes SACD brings the Auditorio of San Fransisco to your music room so naturally that you can close your eyes and think you are there. If you are a purist and abhor the idea of making arrangements of some of Bach's most emotional and at the same time amusing compositions, then just listen to Eudora's latest album, and don't miss this flourish of musical skill in demonstrating that this elevating guitar version actually complements the solo cello's original version.

Copyright © 2016 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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Review by Adrian Quanjer - April 7, 2016

Guitar transcriptions of Bach’s cello suites are not new. Examples are legion; some are part of compilations going from serious to ‘Songs with classical guitar and relaxing sounds’: Complete versions, however, are few. Limiting myself to the serious side, it would still take more than a few lines to get into the heart of the matter than a reviewer can allow himself to do without losing the reader’s attention. Let me nonetheless say this: Almost none of the transcriptions are true to the original. Why?

In a recent study, Frank Koonce “Playing Bach on the Guitar”, refers to a transcription by Richard Wright (I believe he is now on the staff of the ‘The Yehudi Menuhin School’, in Surrey, England), saying that he is perhaps the only one who did so ‘with minimal editorial intervention’, quoting him as saying: “Although the guitar is in some respects the ideal instrument to realize the cello suites, unique polyphony, the predominantly single-line texture of the originals has [to be] preserved throughout”. All the rest, so it seems, must therefore be considered ‘arrangements’.

But such an academically inspired view does, in my view, not necessarily mean that arrangements are not genuine. A cello is not a guitar and even a guitar is not a guitar. Any transcription should, therefore, be an arrangement taking into account the aptitudes of the instrument it is meant for. Esther Steenbergen, a young guitar player from the Netherland plays all the six suites on what she calls a Fifth Bass Guitar; Aleksander Mironov uses classical and seven-string guitars, both with -presumably- their own transcriptions. So does Göran Söllscher, for DGG. Other noteworthy artists are Andres Segovia and John Williams (using the Duarte transcription).

Although transcriptions for horn, bassoon and viola, are available in high resolution, this present disk is the only complete SACD version for guitar.

The soloist, Petrit Çeku, comes from Kossovo in the Balkans, moving to Zagreb, Croatia, for his musical studies, taking further courses in the USA (Baltimore, Maryland). One might say that he is a ‘hoarder’ of prizes: Nine first and three second, the latest ‘first’ having been collected at the 2012 Parkening International Guitar Competition, Malibu, California. The transcription he uses is not his own, but created by Valter Dešpalj, from Croatia as well.

What is so special about Dešpalj, is that he is not only a ‘premier league’ cellist (graduated from the Juilliard School; cello class with Leonard Rose), but also a distinguished guitar player. Knowing both instruments inside out is a clear advantage. In a lengthy interview in the accompanying booklet he explains the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of his transcription. His transcription may, of course, be characterized as an arrangement in that he has taken into account the evident differences between the two instruments, justifying various add-ons. In doing so, one cannot but admit that he has very well succeeded in capturing the idiom of the original.

We now get, at last (!), down to the playing. Simply said: A guitar is not a cello. I’m sure that many cello aficionados will miss the emotional factor, which only the warm sonority of a (well-played) cello can bring about. Petrit Çeku argues that Bach has chosen an instrument ‘that was not typically well-suited for the task’ and I think that no one will disagree that these suites are extremely difficult to play, but a cello has so many more ways of shaping tone and character than a guitar.

On the other hand, transcribed for guitar, the playing is not all that easy, too! It needs a highly proficient and competent player to assure that things do not fall apart. While, in comparison, some other artists fall through, it becomes spectacularly clear that Petrit Çeku is such a gifted player. And not only that, his Ross Gutmeier guitar sounds marvelously in the acoustics of the San Francisco church in Àvila, Spain; richly captured by the Eudora recording team.

As far as I’m concerned, a clear recommendation for guitar lovers, and surely of unexpected interest for others as well. Bach is almost indestructible, no matter what instruments are used, as long as his polyphony, harmony and rhythms, in other words his compositional discourse is respected. And that is exactly what has happened here.

Blangy-le-Château,
Normandy, France

Copyright © 2016 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net

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Review by Mark Novak - April 8, 2016

John and Adrian covered the ground regarding this SACD and I so have little to add to their comprehensive reviews. Let me start by saying that this music is not my usual cup o tea. I received a copy of the SACD set from Ganzalo Noque, the Owner and Chief Engineer of Eudora records and I promised him I'd give it a listen. I did. I'm not a huge Bach aficionado nor am I one who is big on transcriptions. And let me tell you, this is one BIG transcription - the pieces have an entirely different sound world than the usual solo cello. So much so that it is hard to even recognize the music as Bach's for one who is not intimately familiar with the music. What we have here is 2+ hours of lovely Baroque music skillfully played by guitarist Petrit Ceku. As a guitarist myself, I clearly recognize Ceku's talent in executing these scores. That said, the music really is not all that complicated and, for the listener, not all that challenging. It's - PLEASANT. So I think it is clear that I cannot get too worked up over this music. For me it is background music. Perhaps it is more than that for you.

The recorded sound is excellent. The native DSD recording is extraordinarily natural and vibrant. Truly state-of-the-art and demonstration quality. This is the second Eudora SACD I've heard and both have demonstration-quality audio. This guy knows what real instruments in real spaces sound like. Now if I could only get Mr. Noque to record a world-class string quartet in some forgotten Romantic-era music I'd have something to get REALLY excited about. I'll keep my fingers crossed.

Copyright © 2016 Mark Novak and HRAudio.net

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Comments (1)
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Comment by hiredfox - May 7, 2016 (1 of 1)

Seems an odd recording to warrant three reviews when many from the mainstream repertory get none? Who would buy this? Beats me!