classical guitar
July 1994

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH

New transcriptions for guitar

Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue BWV903, 'Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland' BWV659, Sonata in E minor BWV1023, Prelude, Fugue and Allegro BWV998, 'Ich ruf' zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ' BWV639, Toccata and Fugue BWV565.

It takes a brave guitarist to tackle the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue. Hubert Käpel played it to general acclaim, but never recorded it, to my knowledge. Now comes Philip Hii, a Malaysian-born guitarist also with the necessary strength of will and of fingers. Both need to be considerable: this is not a piece for weaklings. The work was never intended for the guitar, but that has never been a hindrance in my book. The only question is: does it continue to be great music when played on the guitar?

In this case, I believe it does. Philip Hii has succeeded where lesser musicians would have failed. Not only does he get the notes in, up to speed and with remarkable accuracy, but his playing is incisive, confident and capable of much expression when the music allows him to be. Moreover, and importantly, he manages to convey most of the grandeur and the majesty of the work, proving yet again that it is not a question of size but of scale.

The astonishing Mr Hii offers four more guitar 'firsts', though the famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor was done by Yamashita with his sister Nakao in a version for guitar duo. This is claimed to be the first solo recording. Philip Hii's approach is not only spirited and gutsy, but is scholarly, which is not a derogatory comment at all. The best scholarship does not ignore excitement, the joy of discovery, the revelling in magnificence, and Philip Hii manages all this without sacrificing coherence and control.

His well-written liner notes explain, with unusual fluency, how he came to make the recording. During musical research into ways of transcribing Bach for the guitar, it struck him that the long uninterrupted lines of notes were contrapuntal textures that had been compacted for the purposes of performance; in Mr Hii's words, 'linear composites of different melodic strands and bass lines, meshed together by a primitive notational system, one which does not indicate part-writing [sic]'. That discovery marked a turning point in his approach. Another discovery was the intriguing theory that the Toccata and Fugue was originally a solo violin work - which meant that a guitar transcription could be attempted with fewer misgivings.

Philip Hii then turned to two Choral Preludes, already known to us in Busoni's piano transcriptions, and was even going to include the original lute suite he had been studying (in E minor, with its three-part gigue counterpoint), but was afraid of the 'onset of minor-key fatigue' in his listeners. Hence the presence of yet another P, F and A - but what a clear fugue, and what a lively allegro! I liked it very much.

The CD is not without a generous helping of the warmth and emotion that exist in Bach's slower movements, notably in the adagio of BWV 1023. It was originally a violin sonata, and the movement really needs long bows. Such is the plausibility and the commitment of Philip Hii that you cease to miss them after a few moments.

With over 60 recordings of the Toccata and Fugue to choose from, few people are going to make a guitar transcription their first choice. If you want clarity of voicing and good forward movement, however, I would not rule it out. As I said before, it's not size but scale that is important. It sounds more like great music when Mr Hii plays it than many an indifferent organ performance I have heard. My favourite performance of it was given by a soldier of the Red Army just after the war, on a button accordion. It left me gasping with wonder, and the recollection of it can still bring on a little wheeziness. Philip Hii's version is in that league. His is a remarkable CD debut, and one that I recommend to all who want guitar music to rise above the salon and to express a little more than intimate charm. It can do more things than would have been imagine 150 years ago, and Philip Hii joins the daring band of prospectors who have mined new gold.

- Colin Cooper

© 1994 Classical Guitar (UK)