Bach: An Imaginary Dance (CD review)

Cello Suites Nos. 1, 3 & 4. Charles Curtis, cello; Anthony Burr, organ; Naren Budhakar, tabla. Entertainment One EOM-CD-2127.

By now, cellist and composer Charles Curtis has probably gotten his audiences used to his doing unusual musical things. He's been a celebrated musician for a number of years, specializing in experimental music, minimalism, modern interpretations of classical pieces, and the like. It is no accident that he has been a Professor of Contemporary Music Performance at the University of California, San Diego, since 2000. In his present album, An Imaginary Dance, two of his colleagues on organ and tabla join Curtis for new looks at three of Bach's well-traveled cello concertos. For purists, this may be sacrilege. For the rest of us, it's simply different, fascinating, and mostly fun.

Curtis, who arranged most of the music with Robert Sadin, performs the suites with Anthony Burr on organ and Naren Budhakar on tabla (a small drum from India, played with the hands). The effect of these three seemingly disparate instruments is surprisingly effective, if, as I say, different.

They begin with the Suite No. 3 in C major, BWV 1009, with Curtis playing the Prelude solo. Then the tabla joins in the succeeding movements, with a light organ accompaniment. It's the plan of attack Curtis employs in all three pieces. As Bach intended most these movements as dance numbers (probably for listening, not for dancing, however)--allemandes, sarabandes, gigues, minuets, and such--the added rhythms of the tapping drum and the further lyricism of the gentle organ backdrop make the music agreeably vibrant and alive. Whether you feel it actually enhances the music is another story, since Bach's solo suites are pretty good all by themselves.

Curtis makes the point in a booklet note that Bach himself rearranged, transcribed, and reorchestrated many of his own works for other instruments and often left it to the individuals playing the music to work out the accompanying ensembles for themselves; so what Curtis is doing today might not have probably bothered Bach much. Indeed, he might have gotten a kick out of these new arrangements had he had a chance to hear them.

Curtis goes on to say that his arrangements, like so many others, offer mere "decoration, adornment." Fair enough. Not even he takes this sort of thing too seriously; music is, after all, for our entertainment, our enjoyment. He further suggest the tabla "hints at the ancient dance traditions of the world" and "the organ, too, brings at times a rawness and verve that are far removed from church services." Again, fair enough.

There is no question Curtis plays with a lively, virtuosic style, his colleagues adding rhythmic vitality and a lilting and sonorous accompaniment. The result is undoubtedly to hear the music almost for the first time, bringing a new dimension to well-worn territory.

Entertainment One recorded the performances at Music Recorders, Hoboken, New Jersey, I assume in the last year or so; they don't specify a date, but the disc bears a 2012 copyright. The engineers have miked the cello up close, making it sound very clean, very clear, and fairly natural, yet without much ambient air or resonance that might have added greater richness. The attending instruments also sound good, although there isn't much sense of their spatial relationship to the cello beyond various degrees of left-to-right stereo separation. There is also a wide dynamic range involved, sometimes getting a bit too loud but assuredly realistic. In short, while the acoustic can sometimes seem a trifle dry, the instruments themselves sound pleasantly warm and comfortable.


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