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Charles Curtis

by B.A. Nilsson on May 10, 2012


Is it a gimmick? Of course it is. So was Switched-On Bach. So is Fazil Say’s rambunctious reworking of Mozart’s “Ronda alla Turca.” Do they grab the listener? They certainly do.

I doubt that Charles Curtis’ fascinating take on Bach’s Cello Suites will become my preferred version, but it has helped me understand that to have a preferred version is to limit my enjoyment of the works. I got to know the pieces through the old Pablo Casals recordings, compared to which, the more historically correct later interpretations sounded weird. At first.

One of the beauties of Bach’s works is their adaptability, which even the composer himself exploited. You find the same movement showing up in several different guises throughout his catalogue. What Curtis has done is leave the suites themselves intact—he recorded numbers 1, 3 and 4—but added organ and tabla. Although Schumann added piano accompaniment to the suites, rarely are they played and, as Curtis notes in his notes, not at all are they needed. Neither, he agrees, is the organ he added, but in this case we’re getting not elaborate counter-figures but merely a sustained harmonic sense, bringing out what’s implicit in the largely single-line original. If it ends up sounding somewhat “Whiter Shade of Pale,” that, too, was Bach-inspired, and who’s to say it didn’t go on to inspire Curtis?

Adding tabla is a stroke of genius. First, there’s a sound to it, a resonant whoosh, unique among hand drums. Conga or cajon would have sounded less exotic. Then there’s the idea, again articulated in Curtis’ notes, of celebrating the dance origins of the movements of these works.

Each of the suites (there are six) is in six movements, each beginning with a freewheeling Prelude (which, on this recording, remains unaccompanied). Then follows a courtly Allemande, a zippier Courante, a slow Sarabande, some manner of tripartite minuet, and a lively and concluding Gigue.

Naren Budhakar adds the tabla rhythms with enthusiasm and restraint, building thoughts within each of the movements he accompanies. Sometimes it’s subtle and dreamy, as if someone in the next room were inspired to chime in; in movements like the gigues, it can be propulsive, with deft syncopations.

The best cello suite performers make it seem improvisatory as they pursue the mysteries that always continue to reveal themselves. By adding these extra instruments with a good sense of purpose, Curtis (whose own playing deserves to be lauded as well) has revealed even more avenues of musical mystery to pursue. Bach fans: Add this one. New to the suites? Great place to get started.