Johann Sebastian Bach: Four Chorales: "Herzliebster Jesu" [arr. H.C. Eren] – "Christ lag in Todesbanden" [arr. T. Hoppstock] – "Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück” [arr. T. Hoppstock] – ”Es ist genug! So nimm, Herr" [arr. H.C. Eren]; Flute Partita in A minor, BWV 1013 [Movements 1-3 arr. A. Cagalj, Movement 4 arr. V. Despalj] – Violin Sonata in G minor, BWV 1001 and Cello Suite in D major, BWV 1012 [arr. M. Grgic]
Mak Grgic (microtonal guitar)
Mandell Studio, Los Angeles, California (October 19 - November 23, 2019) – 58'16
MicroFest Records 19 (Distributed by Naxos of America) – Booklet in English
How does Bach sound in a different tonal universe, performed on an instrument that did not exist in his time?
Pretty well, in the case of a new album, "MAK/Bach". In this collection of Bach selections, Grgic, born in Slovenia, offers a flute partita (BWV 1013), violin sonata (BWV 1001) and cello suite (BWV 1012) frequently played in transcription for either lute or modern classical guitar. But his is no ordinary guitar, a microtonal model tuned to a system used 300 years ago in Western Europe and relatively rare today. The individual sliding frets are tuned to a keyboard temperament (Kirnberger III) designed by Johann Kirnberger, a student who lived with Bach's family.
Converting to 18th century temperament is not simply retuning a conventional modern guitar and calling it a day. To begin with, the modern classical guitar, with its resonant body and bevy of overtones, did not exist in Bach's time. The guitar used by Grgic is a Walter Vogt # 462, 1988, so no matter what the instrument, the sound will not be exactly what Bach may or may not have heard played on the lute, an instrument with a personality that is thin, soft, and percussive.
The most obvious visual difference between Grgic's instrument and other modern guitars is the arrangement of the fret wires. The wires for the two upper strings are ratcheted differently than the wires for the four lower strings, creating a wavy visual effect. The sound is appealing, with the fluid lyricism of a modern instrument, yet the presence of microtones (quarter intervals) adds a quality we may have encountered before in the avant-garde or the music of Asia.
Temperaments may be an interesting subject for the science-minded, but for this writer, they are only servants in the delivery of beautiful music. This Grgic provides in abundance throughout the album. The three major works are separated by Bach chorales transcribed for the guitar. I found these particularly attractive, with their air of yearning and hope, emotions widely experienced during the current pandemic. The guitarist performed "Christ lag in Todesbanden" with elegance and restraint. This short, contemplative selection laid bare some of the contrasts between this instrument and its modern cousin, such as the dry bass line in the microtonal vs. the fluidity of the lower register in a modern instrument. While appreciating Grgic's ability to break chords into arpeggios of exactly the right proportion, I sometimes wished the microtonal guitar had a pedal, like the piano, for extending notes and allowing them to shimmer softly into silence. To discover more about the microtonal approach, I found several websites helpful: EarlyMusicSources.com, MicroFestRecords.com and GuitarSalon.com. John Schneider, the producer, editor, and engineer of this album, and a fantastic guitarist himself, also appears in several online videos in which he explains and demonstrates the microtonal approach.
Can one listen to this recording without being weighed down with technical issues and music history? Of course. Grgic's nimble fingers reveal a Bach of song-like beauty as well as intricate contrapuntal effects. Many of the movements of the larger works, such as the Cello Suite in D major, contain lilting dance steps of the time, a welcome respite from the sometimes overwhelming seriousness of the prolific Leipzig master. Though appreciating the revelations offered in this album, I hope, however, that this exciting artist, whose playing shines with expressive content as well as technical brilliance, will make the modern classical guitar tuned in equal temperament, his primary focus.