REVIEW – God’s Time – Music of J.S. Bach on Guitar

Five Stars ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ : A stimulating, inspiring take on Bach for all lovers of Classical guitar

Jerry Dubins, Fanfare

This appears to be a departure from Aaron Larget-Caplan’s recent albums reviewed in these pages. In those albums, the concert guitarist, composer, arranger, educator, and commissioner of countless works for his instrument can be heard performing dozens of those pieces that he has commissioned and premiered. But at some stage in every guitarist’s career, whether early, middle, or late, there comes the inevitable meeting with Johann Sebastian Bach.

And that is the odd thing, you see, because as far as we know, Bach never wrote a single note for guitar. What he did write—or more properly put, what he transcribed in some cases from works he’d previously composed for other instruments—were a number of pieces for lute and/or lautenwerk, the latter a Baroque keyboard instrument similar to a harpsichord, but strung with gut rather than metal strings, thereby producing a mellow tone imitative of a lute.

Seven such entries appear in Bach’s work catalog under the numbers BWV 995 through 1000, plus BWV 1006a. As noted in a previous review, they are as follows:

Suite in G Minor BWV 995 17314 Lute1 Cello Suite 53
Suite in E Minor BWV 996 17174 Lute-Hpd2
Suite in C Minor BWV 997 17414 Lute-Hpd1
Prelude/Fugue/Allegro BWV 998 17354 Lute Hpd1
Prelude in C Minor BWV 999 17234 Lute1
Fugue in G Minor BWV 1000 17234 Lute1
Suite in E Major BWV 1006a 17374 Lute1 Violin Partita 33

1 Instrument likely
2 Instrument unlikely
3 Bach’s own transcription
4 All dates subject to speculation

By way of an update to the above table, I would quote Clive Titmuss, who, writing in Classical Guitar Canada, cited recent scholarship in stating that “the apocryphal lute works lie well within the confines of Bach’s established keyboard style, and were probably written for various keyboard instruments, including something called the lute-harpsichord.”

In other words, not only did Bach never write a single for guitar, he may never have written an original piece for lute either. Given the fact that many of Bach’s original manuscripts are lost, and that he often cannibalized his own extant works for use in new compositions, no one can say for sure if the seven numbers—minus the composer’s own two transcriptions of the cello suite and the violin partita—didn’t exist in earlier versions for other instruments.

Putting all of that aside, the fact is that much of Bach’s keyboard music, and some of it not for keyboard—I’m thinking of the Chaconne from the Partita in D Minor for Unaccompanied Violin—have been ripe for the picking (no pun intended) by guitarists since time immemorial.

Aaron Larget-Caplan here joins his many illustrious contemporaries and predecessors in a program of Bach’s keyboard works he has put together from his own transcriptions and sometimes fanciful recombinant realizations.

Some of the pieces are familiar fare in guitar collections—for example, the Fantasy from the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, BWV 903, and the very first prelude in C Major from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier. But Larget-Caplan is not necessarily one to play things straight. One would not brand his performances with the HIP label. But then again, considering that none of these pieces was originally conceived for guitar to begin with, the notion of “historically informed practice” begs the question of what is historical and who is doing the informing. Thus, no eyebrow need be raised when Larget-Caplan raises the octave of the last measures of the aforementioned C-Major Prelude “for an ethereal conclusion.”

When it comes to those famed guitarists past and present— Segovia, Oscar Ghilgia, and Eliot Fisk—Larget-Caplan invokes their spirt and their arrangements of the Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro, BWV 998, one of those speculative lute-harpsichord pieces cited in the above table.

The album cover sports an unusual title, God’s Time, extracted from the full title of Bach’s Cantata, Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (God’s time is the very best time), BWV 106. While not the longest track on the disc, I intuit from Larget-Caplan’s deeply-felt album note that his guitar arrangement of the cantata’s opening Sonatina is the emotional heart, soul, and inspiration for this labor of love.

Larget-Caplan quotes Seymour Bernstein, with whom he studied, as saying, “Our job as musicians is to elicit emotion.” Larget-Caplan then relates the story of how Bernstein performed his piano arrangement of BWV 106, and how “at that moment, I understood. I felt the whole world majestically move in solemn humility. He then turned to me, handed me the music with instructions to arrange it for guitar. Basing my version of Gottes Zeit ist die allerbest Zeit on Bersntein’s, I keep the original key of EI Major and dedicate it to him for the decades of glorious inspiration he has given his students.”

I readily admit that some of what’s on offer in Larget-Caplan’s recital takes a little sorting out because he has reconstituted it to take new forms never envisioned by Bach. Such is the headnote item listed as the Prelude and Fugue in D Minor, “Fiddle,” BWV 953 and 1000. According to Larget-Caplan’s album note, “Bach wrote three versions of the “Fiddle” Fugue: 1) the G-Minor Fugue from the Unaccompanied Violin Sonata, BWV 1001; 2) the speculative lute version in G Minor, BWV 1000; and 3) the version for organ, transposed to D Minor, BWV 539. Only the violin and organ fugues include a prelude.

Based on this, and “inspired by Julian Breams’s fugue arrangement and encouraged by harpsichordist Peter Sykes to research the organ version,” Larget-Caplan tells us that he launched into his own edition, a draft of which he shared with pianist Seymour Bernstein in 2013, and was encouraged by Bernstein to continue. “Performed in A Minor, the somber and lyrical Prelude derives from the organ version. The exciting and relentless Fugue is a mélange of all three versions.”

Much else on the second half of the program is given over to selections from the groupings of Little Preludes, BWV 924–932, BWV 933–938, and BWV 939–943. Bach’s authorship of some of these pieces is doubtful. But whether by Bach or not, all of them were almost certainly intended for keyboard instruction of Bach’s children and his other students. In their settings for guitar by Larget-Caplan, these simple, yet hardly simplistic, pieces come across with the pristine beauty and sense of timelessness that tell us these too are in “God’s time.”

For the recording, made in June, 2022, Larget-Caplan plays a 2009 guitar by French maker Olivier Fanton D’Andon. D’Andon received the highest national distinction in France as Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur for his award-winning work as a luthier. Listening to his guitar on this recording, one would have to agree that the recognition accorded him was well-deserved.

But of course, the guitar doesn’t play itself, and for that Aaron Larget-Caplan earns the highest praise possible for his flawless and very impressive technique, the great beauty of tone he draws from the instrument, and for his highly creative, thought-provoking, and emotionally moving performances of these works. If God can make time for this, surely you can too. Jerry Dubins

BACH Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro in EI, BWV 998. WTC, Book I: Prelude No. 1 in C, BWV 846; Prelude No. 8 in eI, BWV 853. Prelude and Fugue in d, “Fiddle,” BWV 953 and 1000. Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, BWV 106. Chromatic Fantasy in d, BWV 903. Little Preludes: No. 1 in C, BWV 924; No. 5 in d, BWV 926; No. 11 in g, BWV 930; No. 2 in c, BWV 934; No. 3 in c, BWV 999/872; No. 2 in C, BWV 939. Little Fugue in c, BWV 961 • Aaron Larget-Caplan (gtr) • CDs: BANDCAMP 888-09 (49:01) • Streaming: SPOTIFYAMAZONAPPLE

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