Bach Without the Wax Paper: Mak Grgic Playing on a Well-Tempered (Kirnberger III) Guitar


Microfest Records MF 19

Microtones and alternate tuning systems are increasingly one of the most significant streams in new classical music as well as in the revisioning of old classical music to capture the sound of the music in its original milieu, which is not current performance practice. In the liner notes John Schneider says that hearing Bach in 12 tone equal temperament (current performance practice) is analogous to “exhibiting Rembrandt paintings with wax paper taped over them.”

That image conjures for me a childhood memory of my mother bringing home some of the promotional gimmicks by one of the Chicago based supermarkets. It involved prints of famous paintings with a wax textured surface to imitate the look of oil paint on canvas. It’s a tortured metaphor for the present recording but it speaks of “cheesy imitation”. The present recording is one of an increasing number of recordings done with the scholarship of the very complex area of tuning, the surprisingly varied types of scales devised to solve harmonic complexities that occur due to the physics of sound itself. And by so doing, placing earlier efforts as “cheesy” by contrast.

In fact, Schneider (who kindly sent this disc to me), is one of the scholars at the forefront of recreating the musical scales as they existed at the time of the compositions so to get a clearer idea of how it must have sounded at the time. Toward that end one can now obtain guitars capable of being tuned to the subtleties of the scales. Another such disc was reviewed here. In fact guitarist Dan Lippel, in that recording played one of Mr. Schneider’s guitars.

I am working to learn more about the fascinating field of alternate tuning systems to better understand the various tunings in the flow of new music that comes to my desk. But listeners need not concern themselves with these details. The curious fact for this listener is that, on first hearing, the subtle differences in tunings were not immediately obvious (Well Tempered Kirnberger III on this recording). A better trained musical ear would doubtless hear these differences much sooner than I had but I have noticed that I have begun to hear these subtleties having been listening to this disc and some of the similar efforts on the aforementioned Lippel recordings and other titles on Mr. Schneider’s fine Microfest label. It seems like a sort of learning curve in which my brain learns to process these sounds and to hear them as more natural rather than altered.

I apologize for all this chatter but this album is not just about Bach, it is about hearing Bach as he heard it, freed from the shackles of the dominant western paradigms of how to tune a scale. It is a revelation but a gentle one whose radiance is clearer in the light of the retuning of the scale, removing the “wax paper” of the familiar western tuning to reveal a clarity not heard since the composer’s time. It is analogous to the 2018 restoration of the Rose Window (1210) in Chartres Cathedral bringing light in ways not seen in a very long time.

The fine Slovenian guitarist, Mak Grgic is a new name to this writer but one I hope to hear from again. In his selection of repertoire as well as his distinctive playing he makes a compelling and loving case for this music. His well organized web site details his work as musician, teacher, musicologist, composer, and international performer. This release is (by discogs) his seventh appearance on CD and his second recording for Microfest Records.

These are apparently Grgic’s transcriptions, not the “usual suspects” one might expect from a new Bach recording with the exception of the Cello Suite in D. This is apparently a very personal selection of music chosen with curational care. I’ve included a photo of the back cover to show the unique selections.

The Rose Window depicts the revelation and the final judgement of mankind. The present audio document is a gentle revelation but doubtless not the final word on Bach. But the scholarship is fascinating and the sound simply gorgeous. The wax paper has been removed.

Modern Tuning Scholarship, Authentic Bach Performance: Daniel Lippel’s “Aufs Lautenwerk”


New Focus FCR 920

This album works so very well on many levels. It is a great example of the state of the art in tuning scholarship, a lovely recording of a fine instrument, and a deeply engaging example of authentic and thoughtful performance practice. From the moment I first heard this CD I was entranced by the very musical experience. There is as much to appreciate in the depth and accuracy of the scholarship involved as there is in the deeply committed and learned performance. This recording is “definitive” in that it represents state of the art tuning theory, instrument making, and baroque performance practice.

Readers of this blog know that I rarely review music written before 1950 but this is a rather special case of contemporary scholarship that, in its way, occupies both the old and the new. It is Bach in the context of the modern scholar providing a unique insight for the modern listener. And, having reviewed much of Mr. Lippel’s work with contemporary music this journey to the past provides a useful perspective on the artist’s range.

This is NOT the complete Bach music for guitar (the modern guitar did not exist in Bach’s time). This is NOT the complete Bach music for lute played on guitar. Rather this is the complete Bach music for “Lautenwerk“, a curious instrument which was a cross between a lute and a harpsichord. While there have been reconstructions of this unusual instrument there are no known extant instruments from Bach’s time. The instrument featured gut strings (rather than metal) which produced a softer sound. The strings were plucked by quills controlled by a keyboard in the manner of a harpsichord and pretty much anyone who played keyboard could play this instrument.

This is a performance on a guitar tuned to the “well tempered” tuning which inspired Bach’s definitive masterpiece, “The Well Tempered Clavier” which demonstrated the utility of the well tempered tuning system (Andreas Werckmeister’s to be specific). This differs considerably from equal temperament tuning which permeates most of the music we commonly hear in western classical traditions. While the technicalities of tuning are well beyond the scope of this review (more information is available at http://www.MicroFestRecords.com and in any number of learned theses on tuning) the critical fact is that this recording provides, as much as possible, the experience of hearing this music on an instrument tuned in the manner which Bach and his contemporaries used. This is about as close as one could come to hearing what Bach’s audiences heard.

All this attention to tuning scholarship, authentic instrument building, and authentic performance practice place this album in the lineage of similarly definitive recordings by the likes of Noah Greenberg and the New York Pro Musica along with artists such as David Munrow, Julian Bream, Alfred Deller, and their successors. The scholarship here draws on the work of scholars whose lineage includes Harry Partch and Ben Johnston. The liner notes are written by one of the living royalty of microtonal scholars, John Schneider (himself a guitarist and composer who is in the process of recording definitive editions of all of Harry Partch’s work). Also mentioned is the assertion by another living royalty of tuning scholarship, the composer/scholar Kyle Gann who suggests that, “hearing performances of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier in modern equal temperament is like viewing Rembrandt’s work through wax paper”. The analogy is apt and the value of this recording is the “removal of the wax paper” (so to say), allowing the listener to hear something much closer to the composer’s original intent.

Of course a standard guitar cannot play these tunings so the artist turned to German luthier (guitar builder) Walter Vogt whose invention, The Fine Tunable Fretboard, graces the beautiful instrument seen on the album cover. This is the instrument we hear in this recording. It is tuned to Johann Kirnberger’s keyboard well tempered tuning system.

And now to the artist. Daniel Lippel is a guitarist, producer, and new music advocate. Though he did release a Bach on guitar recording in 2007 the majority of his work on recordings has been dominated by music composed after 1950 and actually mostly after 2000. Hearing his affinity for baroque performance practice is indeed a revelation by itself. Lippel whose virtuosity and facility with new music is well known demonstrates his facility with baroque performance turning in a ravishingly beautiful recording of this music.

There are three works on this disc, the 6 movement Suite in E minor BWV 996, the four movement Suite in C minor BWV 997, and the Prelude, Fuga, and Allegro BWV 998. The performances are candy for the ears and food for the soul. This is a level of excellence that has this writer hoping for more.