Bach: An Imaginary Dance (CD review)

Cello Suites Nos. 1, 3 & 4. Charles Curtis, cello; Anthony Burr, organ; Naren Budhakar, tabla. Entertainment One EOM-CD-2127.

By now, cellist and composer Charles Curtis has probably gotten his audiences used to his doing unusual musical things. He's been a celebrated musician for a number of years, specializing in experimental music, minimalism, modern interpretations of classical pieces, and the like. It is no accident that he has been a Professor of Contemporary Music Performance at the University of California, San Diego, since 2000. In his present album, An Imaginary Dance, two of his colleagues on organ and tabla join Curtis for new looks at three of Bach's well-traveled cello concertos. For purists, this may be sacrilege. For the rest of us, it's simply different, fascinating, and mostly fun.

Curtis, who arranged most of the music with Robert Sadin, performs the suites with Anthony Burr on organ and Naren Budhakar on tabla (a small drum from India, played with the hands). The effect of these three seemingly disparate instruments is surprisingly effective, if, as I say, different.

They begin with the Suite No. 3 in C major, BWV 1009, with Curtis playing the Prelude solo. Then the tabla joins in the succeeding movements, with a light organ accompaniment. It's the plan of attack Curtis employs in all three pieces. As Bach intended most these movements as dance numbers (probably for listening, not for dancing, however)--allemandes, sarabandes, gigues, minuets, and such--the added rhythms of the tapping drum and the further lyricism of the gentle organ backdrop make the music agreeably vibrant and alive. Whether you feel it actually enhances the music is another story, since Bach's solo suites are pretty good all by themselves.

Curtis makes the point in a booklet note that Bach himself rearranged, transcribed, and reorchestrated many of his own works for other instruments and often left it to the individuals playing the music to work out the accompanying ensembles for themselves; so what Curtis is doing today might not have probably bothered Bach much. Indeed, he might have gotten a kick out of these new arrangements had he had a chance to hear them.

Curtis goes on to say that his arrangements, like so many others, offer mere "decoration, adornment." Fair enough. Not even he takes this sort of thing too seriously; music is, after all, for our entertainment, our enjoyment. He further suggest the tabla "hints at the ancient dance traditions of the world" and "the organ, too, brings at times a rawness and verve that are far removed from church services." Again, fair enough.

There is no question Curtis plays with a lively, virtuosic style, his colleagues adding rhythmic vitality and a lilting and sonorous accompaniment. The result is undoubtedly to hear the music almost for the first time, bringing a new dimension to well-worn territory.

Entertainment One recorded the performances at Music Recorders, Hoboken, New Jersey, I assume in the last year or so; they don't specify a date, but the disc bears a 2012 copyright. The engineers have miked the cello up close, making it sound very clean, very clear, and fairly natural, yet without much ambient air or resonance that might have added greater richness. The attending instruments also sound good, although there isn't much sense of their spatial relationship to the cello beyond various degrees of left-to-right stereo separation. There is also a wide dynamic range involved, sometimes getting a bit too loud but assuredly realistic. In short, while the acoustic can sometimes seem a trifle dry, the instruments themselves sound pleasantly warm and comfortable.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

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