Bach: New Transcriptions for Guitar
Philip Hii
Sound: A, Performance: A+

There are no Olympic competitions for music, thank goodness, but if there were, a few young musicians would be setting dizzying world records (no pun intended) for instrumental virtuosity. Among them would be classical guitarist Philip Hii, who taught himself to play while growing up in Malaysia and now teaches and performs from a home base in Texas. His Johann Sebastian Bach: New Transcriptions for Guitar is an almost mind-numbing achievement in dexterity and musicality.

Bach did not, of course, write for the guitar, and there is even some question whether he actually wrote for lute, despite the well-known suites. Hence the guitarists, like anyone else playing a contemporary instrument, must turn to transcriptions. These rarely fit easily on the guitar and often result in performance compromises. Many versions are available for most of Bach's works, differing mainly in key transposition, fingering, and the positions where various passages are played. Hii has opted to make his own transcriptions (published by GSP), employing a novel approach that starts with a presumption of what Bach might have done with the guitar's challenges and an assumption that Bach, despite the guitar's limitations, would want his pieces performed up to tempo and charged with their inherent emotional content. Thus, Hii has taken liberties here and there, streamlining internal harmonies where necessary while maintaining the essence of the compositions. The results are stunning.

For this album, Hii has turned some of Bach's most endearing solo works into guitar showcases. Hii's muscular arpeggios ripple through such masterpieces as the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, BWV 903, and Sonata in E Minor, BWV 1023, whose dissonances sound as fresh and intellectually satisfying today as they must have three centuries ago. Less commonly heard in guitar programs are two more meditative hymns, the somber "Nun Komm' der Heiden Heiland," BWV 659, and the lilting "Ich ruf' zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ," BWV 639.

But the show stoppers are Toccata and Fugue, BWV 656, and Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro, BWV 998. The Toccata, by virtue of its difficulty, is rarely tackled on a six-string. Hii's stellar arrangement and reading rousingly capture the propulsive rhythmic drive and the wide dynamic range required for this piece; it is spine-chilling. About two phrases into this performance, you almost forget it's being played on a guitar, not a keyboard.

If there is a piece of sonic ecstasy in the universe, it must be BWV 998. The Prelude spins a delightfully magical melodic web. Taken at a much faster pace than usual, it sets up the almost painful suspensions and passing tones of the deliberate and bittersweet Fugue. All these are then swept away in the racing finale of the Allegro, here played at a tempo that would make the most brazen heavy-metal speed demon proud. It's an experience that left me breathless and exuberant.

If there is a minor flaw, it's in the sound, which appears to have been recorded analog. The sound of Hii's guitar is full and warm and not drowned in excess reverb, but tape hiss occasionally peeps through the silence between movements as the music pots down. It's not especially distracting unless you crank up the volume, which the excitement of Hii's pyrotechnics invites you to do.

Fortunately for music lovers, there can never be a definitive Bach, but Philip Hii's New Transcriptions for Guitar must certainly join the ranks of the great performances and will undoubtedly give up-and-coming contenders an exciting goal to strive for. Do yourself a favor: Don't miss this album. (Available from GSP Recordings, 514 Bryant St., San Francisco, Cal. 94107.)

Michael Wright

© 1996 Audio