Bach on Fire

Lily Afshar guitar
Archer Records ARR-31962
BWV998, 1006a, 1007, 1009, “Ave Maria”

All the pieces on this CD are arranged by Lily Afshar for the classical guitar, and are published in her collection, Essential Bach Arranged for the Guitar (Pacific, Missouri: Mel Bay, 2013). She exploits the technique of playing across the strings, rather than along them, so as to sustain the harmony created by single-line passages, as did early 17th-century lutenists with their style brisé, and baroque guitarists with their campanellas. Most of Bach’s lute music survives only in staff notation, not tablature, so it is not clear which technique was intended, but I like what she does, having had similar aims with my own youthful arrangements of Bach for the guitar.

The CD begins with a spirited performance of Bach’s Lute Suite no. 4 (BWV 1006a), which is adapted from Bach’s Third Violin Partita (BWV 1006). In the exciting, virtuosic Prelude, Afshar maintains momentum by omitting some of the bass notes present in the lute version, but which were not in the Violin Partita. She does the same in the elegantly flowing Bourrée and Gigue. It is not a serious loss, since the Violin Sonata was fine without them, and one has to adapt the music to the instrument one has; a mere six strings and a tuning largely in fourths does have its limitations.

Other pieces are the well-known Cello Suite no. 1 (BWV 1007), Prelude, Fugue and Allegro (BWV 998) benefitting from a sonorous dropped D tuning, and Cello Suite no. 3 (BWV 1009) including two modestly restrained Bourrées. The CD ends with an interesting and effective arrangement of Ave Maria, taken from Bach’s Prelude no. 1 in C major (BWV 846) from Book 1 of Das Wohltemperierte Klavier, with a vocal melody added 100 years later by Charles Gounod (1818-93). It Is certainly strange (but not unpleasant) to hear a Bach Prelude turned into a sort of Victorian Cavatina.

I’m not sure that “Bach on Fire” is a fair reflection of Afshar’s playing. She has a certain gentleness and sensitivity in her interpretation (even in the liveliest movements like the superfast Allegro from BWV 998,) which I find appropriate and most attractive.

Stewart McCoy