There are no documents that truthfully prove the existence of a relationship between Johann Sebastian Bach and the guitar. However, it is reasonable to think that, even by pure chance, he may have come across guitar players on several occasions. After considering the structural features of his instrumental music, it seems likely to imagine that an instrument with a faint sound and without much ornament in the bass – such as the guitar in those times, nowadays called baroque guitar – did not arise any interest in him. The case of the lute was different, as in the times of Bach, and specially in his native Germany, it had found a niche of florid survival: remembering the work of Silvius Leopold Weiss – that Bach knew thoroughly – is enough to prove how the German lute works of the late Baroque had risen the instrument to the peak of its history, which had started in the 16th century.
The fervor of the lute also passed the threshold into Bach´s composition studio. The name "lute" had not previously referred to a well-defined instrument, but to a family of instruments characterized by their morphological profile. Even though they were different both in their dimensions and in their tuning, in the times of Bach and in his musical environment, they were musical tools stabilized in a thirteen-course structure and tuned in D. This was the lute with which Bach was somewhat familiar, since both his friend Weiss and his pupil Johann Ludwig Krebs played it. However, there is no proof that Bach ever played a lute.
Another true fact was that Bach had obtained two Lautenwerck built by the master organ maker Zacharias Hildebrand: the Lautenwerck was in essence a harpsichord built with lute strings, that is, an instrument that allowed the performer a certain smoothness in the strings technique and that produced a sound that was close – if not identical – to the real lute. The following question has always existed, and the answer may never be found: Did Bach write his lute music for the lute itself or for the Lautenwerck? While both hypothesis are plausible, with the passage of time and the progress of research, the Lautenwerck hypothesis seems to prevail for nearly all of Bach´s lute compositions. This hypothesis is based mainly on the observation of the counterpoint writing used by Bach, as well as in the keys chosen in some of his compositions. When given to a Lautenwerck performer, the Bach lute music flows naturally. On the other hand, the performer of a thirteen-course lute tuned in D has more restrictions. In this case it is problematic to respect, with appropriate time picking, the character of the upbeat movements or the production of instrumental effects that lead to the levitation of sonority in certain passages. Obviously Bach wrote in mensural notation, not in tablature, as his contemporary lute players did.
From the beginning of the 20th century, and with omens from the Romanticism of the 19th century, there is some kind of musical epiphenomenon: the guitar – ignored by Bach – sees between the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century how its spread in the low register is enlarged with the addition of the sixth string, and it frees itself from the ambiguous sound of double strings with the adoption of simple strings. Thanks to the intuition of some enlightened guitar players who loved Bach´s music, his music starts to look like a sort of balanced commitment between the Lautenwerck (problematic for several reasons) and the baroque lute. The guitar is more agile and clear than the lute and its sound is much more versatile and pleasant than the Lautenwerck. It allows – in most musical possibilities implied in the Bach text – to respect the different characters – with some limitations just in certain movements – and to magnify the expression and the production of effects with great beauty and fineness.
A history of Bach´s performances by guitar players has not been written yet, but the pieces of information that would form such a history float fragmentarily in hundreds of sources. If we simplified things as much as possible, we could say that the work of Francisco Tárrega described a strong guitar approach to Bach´s music. It should also be noted that, chronologically speaking, he was not the first one. The romantic poet of the guitar was briefly enrolled in the violin class of the Madrid Conservatory, where he had the possibility of listening to Sonatas and Partitas for violin. From those he extracted the stimulus to make some very valuable transcriptions, among which we could highlight the Fugue of the Sonata No. 1 in G minor (BWV 1001), that Tárrega transposed successfully to A minor. Tárrega certainly did not know Bach´s music for lute by then. In any case, his perception of the guitar´s potential towards Bach´s music was welcomed and shared by four of the most important post-Tárrega guitar players: Antonio Jiménez Manjón (who seems to have been the first one in transcribing in 1913 the Ciaccona of the Partita for violin no. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004), Miguel Llobet, Agustín Barrios and Andrés Segovia. In the programmes of these masters, Bach´s music has a continuous presence from the second decade of the 20th century onwards, some sort of safe-conduct that allows the guitar player to wear the same honorable clothes of the piano player or the violin player.
The history of guitar revival in the 20th century reached its peak in the art of Andrés Segovia, who regularly played and transcribed Bach´s music. For Segovia, the first sources of Bach´s music were those performed by Tárrega, that is, the Sonatas and Partitas for violin. This happened until 1921, and then there was a change of direction. Segovia had not become famous yet and played mostly in his native country, but in that year he did his second tour in Latin America. It was probably in Buenos Aires – a lively cultural centre, with bookstores and music shops that were well-stocked and up-to-date with novelties – where he bought a recently edited volume of Johann Sebastian Bach, Kompositionen für die Laute, published in Zürich by Möseler Verlag with the supervision of the German musicologist Hans Dagobert Bruger. A few decades later, Segovia said in an interview that he had felt in heaven that day. Despite all the reservations that musicology may have nowadays about the Bruger editions, we fully understand the young master´s enthusiasm: with a new Bach territory extended before his eyes, he was going to cultivate it regularly for the rest of his life. His transcriptions, published by Schott, reveal his preferences in the Bach universe, now enriched by the pages for lute. Let us think also about how he must have rejoiced during both the transcription and the rendition of the distinctive Prelude in C minor (BWV 999): when being transported from a D minor tonality, it seems to be an original study for guitar, despite being performed harmonically with a variety that no guitar player or composer could have ever matched.
Since then, the interest of guitar players in Bach has developed and deepened until it generated not only a series of editions of the whole lute corpus, but also some remarkable studies of Bach´s works, significant even beyond the guitar world (Tilman Hoppstock, Eduardo Fernández). As to the recordings, we face a much-populated archipelago quite arduous to be mapped out, although the names of the performers who really made a difference are eventually very few.
Unlike the Sonatas and Partitas for violin and the Cello Suites, Bach´s compositions for lute do not form a stylistically compact corpus and they are rather the product of various periods. Their dates are also uncertain. The reliability of the manuscript sources is diverse too: there are signed manuscripts of the Suite BWV 995, the triptych Prelude, Fugue and Allegro BWV 998 and the Suite BWV 1006a, but we received the texts of other compositions after they were written by other hands, and that – specially in the case of the Suite in C minor BWV 997 – generates certain doubts.
Several types of adaptation are needed to perform these compositions on guitar. In the case of the Suite BWV 995, it is necessary to transpose the original key of G minor to A minor. There is also a version of this Suite for cello (Suite in C minor BWV 1011): we can therefore confirm that Bach admitted key changes for instrumental convenience. The Suite BWV 996 was composed in a key suited for guitar (E minor), but many details of polyphonic writing need adjusting so that they fit the guitar technique. The Suite in C minor BWV 997 has to be transposed down a minor third (A minor), which entails an inevitable compression of the polyphonic structure, counterbalanced by the optimum sound performance that the guitar confers to the Double if handled by a virtuoso´s talent. The triptych Prelude, Fugue and Allegro BWV 998 is written in E flat major, and it has to be lowered in one semitone to D Major for optimum guitar performance. The brief Prelude BWV 999 is in C minor and the guitar reflects it effectively in D minor. The Fugue BWV 1000 is a lute variation that we got thanks to the notation that a Bach devotee made of the second movement of Sonata No. 1 in G minor BWV 1001 for violin, acquired from the guitar repertoire from Francisco Tárrega and transposed to A minor. The Suite BWV 1006a (possibly the lute version of Suite BWV 1006 for violin) is written in E major. This favours the guitar much more than the baroque lute, and it offers itself naturally without any adaptation requirement, specially in the sparkling Prelude, which in the guitar language finds one of its congenial resources in the effect called bariolage. Unintentionally, Bach wrote a great piece for a type of guitar that did not yet exist in his time.
Gabriel Estarellas is one of the greatest guitar players of our time. His performing art is characterized by original choices and always disciplined performances. This has been shown in the hardest field, the collaboration with composers – mainly fellow nationals – to achieve the enlargement of the guitar repertoire. The array of works dedicated to him by the prime Iberian examples of the 20th century is long and significant. His ability to assimilate new music is also impressive, and in his concerts he offers an extraordinary variety of authors and styles, always grouped by his disciplined rule of performer able to subordinate the virtuosity – both mental and manual – to expressive purposes.
His performances – both of the solo repertoire and the concerts for guitar and orchestra – are models of clarity and formal logic. They have the unique quality of putting the listener directly in touch with the musical substance of the works, without ever interfering with exhibitionist pressures.
It is therefore not surprising that he now presents a recording of all of Bach´s lute music. Despite the fact that his well-known figure as a performer and the history of his career as a soloist are linked to the vicissitudes of the history of Spanish music in the last thirty years, his decision to come back to the old Bach cathedrals is understandable. He is pushed to this challenge by the urge to use all the knowledge of a four-decade career in an undertaking that only admits performers who have achieved and take for granted the skill, the plenitude and the flexibility of the sound, the purity of the technical movements and all the richness that may be used to attain a highest aim: shedding some light on these great musical pages.
When listening to these CDs, after the first beats we realize how Estarellas has tried to make “an open window to music” out of his guitar art, so that we forget it completely when contemplating the musical landscape. The sound is shining and very flexible, and it is used with architectural purposes. The scope of the sentences, both in the form and in the continuous flow, is the result of a crystal clear transparency. His energy relations (accumulation, upkeep and liberation) are defined by a pressing logic. The intensifications and the subtleties of pronunciation of each particular detail are adjusted with goldsmith´s accuracy. Polyphony is reproduced with organ balance but with a sharpness that only the guitar allows. In this regard it is important to mention that the performer, with a clean slate on all the accidental inequalities of lower rank guitar performances that disturb the course of the lines with surprises and deficiencies, takes advantage of the manageability of the guitar sound (inaccessible to the harpsichord and the organ) to focus on precious details that would have otherwise been imperceptible. In this context it becomes evident what Estarellas has managed: on the one hand, the extent and the accuracy of the architectural design; on the other hand, the meticulous care for details, all of it covered by a spontaneous language totally lacking in rhetoric.
At this point it seems nearly superfluous to notice how, while Estarellas assigns to the text the thorough value of the composer´s thought, he does not consider the page open to ornamental interventions or to spontaneous leaps (with due respect for readings based on different aesthetic principles). In Estarellas´s logic, the very few and discreet exceptions to the text seem to be based more on a formal choice (when repeating a section, avoiding to repeat things already expressed) than on the need to leave room for imagination. The performer may obviously think that Bach´s imagination was more than enough to fill the musical pages with that blow that makes them unmistakable and unforgettable.
Vercelli, April 28th 2011
Nacido en Palma de Mallorca, Gabriel Estarellas está considerado como el gran impulsor de la música española para guitarra del siglo XX. Con casi 200 estrenos mundiales, 17 discos grabados y varias composiciones, como sus conocidos “Diez Estudios de Virtuosismo”, Gabriel Estarellas es un punto de referencia del instrumento. En 2004 se le concedió el Premio Trujamán, el más importante de guitarra a nivel nacional y que se otorga por el conjunto de su trayectoria. Ha ganado numerosos concursos internacionales, entre los que destacan el “Viotti” en Italia, “Ramírez” en Santiago de Compostela y el “Francisco Tárrega” en Benicasim.
Ha actuado en relevantes Festivales Internacionales, entre los que destacamos los de Stresa, París, Santander, Pollensa, Alicante, Santiago de Compostela, Córdoba, Puerto Rico, Cuba y Texas Music Festival. Ha actuado como solista con la English Chamber Orchestra, London Mozart Players, Orquesta de Cámara de París, Orquesta Nacional de España, Orquesta de la RTVE, Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid, Orquesta Comunidad de Madrid, Filarmónica de Minsk, Nacional de Cuba, Orquesta Sinfónica de Puerto Rico, Camerata de Houston, Orquesta Reina Sofía, Filarmónica de Galicia, Sinfónicas de Málaga, Murcia, Castilla y León, Orquesta de Cámara Española, etc… Ha dado recitales por toda Europa, Centro-América, Asia y Estados Unidos. En el 2010 se crea el Festival y Concurso Internacional de guitarra Gabriel Estarellas
en la ciudad de Arequipa, Perú.
Ha colaborado estrechamente con casi todos los grandes compositores españoles del siglo XX, que le han dedicado y escrito específicamente para él. Entre sus estrenos mundiales destacan el Concierto de Benicasim de Leo Brouwer, Concierto Poético de Claudio Prieto, Música de Corte de Alexandre Tansman, Concierto de Bellver de Valentín Ruiz, Concierto Cervantino de Gabriel Fernández Álvez, Concertante de Xavier Benguerel, Concierto Goyesco de Manuel Moreno-Buendía, etc.
Ha grabado numerosos discos de compositores actuales con obras de Claudio Prieto, David del Puerto, Eduardo Morales-Caso, Ángel Barrios, Gabriel Fernández Álvez, Luis de Pablo, Goffredo Petrasi, José Luis Turina, Zulema de la Cruz, Manuel Moreno-Buendía, Manuel Millán, Miguel Ángel Jiménez, Juan Medina, etc…
Ha sido Catedrático de Guitarra del Real Conservatorio Superior de Música de Madrid y actualmente es Profesor Honorario de la Universidad de San Agustín de Arequipa, Perú.