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Get Bach: Two very different approaches to Johann Sebastian

Albums by Harvey Valdes, "Lute Works on Electric Guitar," and Jason Vieaux, "Works for Violin." show the modern side and the beauty of Bach's work.
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Harvey Valdes

Novarre: JS Bach Lute Works on Electric Guitar

(Destiny Records Music)

It takes a lot of nerve to do anything “new” (or even modern) with Bach, and more so when it’s his compositions for the lute that are in your crosshairs.

Thankfully, Valdes proved many albums ago that he’s not one to stand on ceremony, not even when sacred cows are in the room. Novarre is Latin for “to make new,” and adding what Valdes calls “my personal take” to four pieces - major works “Lute Suite in C Minor” and “Prelude, Fugue and Allegro in E-Flat Major,” and the briefer “Prelude in C Minor” and “Fugue in G Minor” - certainly draws the ear to the textures that Bach made his own.

“The music of Bach is timeless,” Valdes recently remarked; “It has so much emotion and intellect. There’s definitely some sort of magical quality to it as well. Bach’s music can be joyous or even sad and it has the ability to suspend time while you’re listening to it.” And this from a man whose dream trip in a time machine would be back to see Black Sabbath in 1975.

If these pieces have been subject to an electric guitar treatment in the past, it has eluded Classical Gas; the acoustics of Julian Bream are generally considered the gold standard, with Jason Vieaux coming in a close second. And while it would be futile trying to compare Novarre with them, there is one very key aspect where it might be permissable. As surprising as Bream’s work was back in 1966, so Valdes’s is today.

This is especially notable on the opening “Lute Suite,” the one performance that both Novares and Julian Bream Plays Bach have in common. Both guitarists bring whole new echoes into play, but whereas Bream is firmly a classical guitarist, Valdes is tinged with jazz and rock, and isn’t afraid of improvisation, either. It would be way too ambitious to describe this as an updating of such familiar pieces of music. But there’s not many words that fit any better.

  

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Jason Vieaux

Bach Volume 2 - Works for Violin

(Azica Records)

And Bach is back, although it’s been 13 years since Vieaux and Azica Records combined for volume one in this series. Then, the Grammy winning guitarist tackled Bach’s lute works — see above, coincidentally enough. Now it’s the violin pieces that are under the spotlight — the seven movements of “Partita No.3 in E Major,” and the four apiece of “Sonata No 1 in G minor” and “No.3 in C Major.”

All, then, are familiar pieces, but no matter how electrifying the verve with which Vieaux performs, there was a reason why these pieces were composed for violin. The performances here are beautifully played and recorded, but they do not and possible can’t be expected to reach out in the manner that, for example, a recording of Nathan Milstein or Janine Jansen might be.

That said, the “Fuga” of “Sonata No.3,” with its cheeky echoes of “London Bridge is Falling Down” is as great a delight here as it is in any other hands, and although this might not become your go-to album when it comes to late night Bach, it should not be overlooked, either.