Notes and Editorial Reviews
Cello Suites: Nos. 1–6,
Gwendolyn Burgett Thrasher (mmb)
BLUE GRIFFIN 151 (2 CDs: 122:04)
When I was at school I always enjoyed overhearing percussion-players practicing Bach on the marimba or xylophone. Now, thanks to Gwendolyn Burgett Thrasher, I no longer have to eavesdrop, but can indulge freely. Inspired by Bach’s Third Lute Suite, itself a transcription of the Fifth Cello Suite,
she’s followed his example and preserved the essentials—melody, harmony, and character—while adding bass notes to take advantage of the marimba’s polyphonic capability. Addressing the most easily anticipated objection, the marimba is not a cello. But then, neither is a cello a marimba. By this I mean that the floating, resonant tone of the marimba possesses a unique, atmospheric charm. True, the cello can link notes together in an unbroken legato, is sometimes more vigorous in attack, possesses an expressive, penetrating tone, and is Bach’s designated instrument. The marimba’s ability to sustain notes is limited, but this deficiency can be overcome by tremolos or repeated notes. However, these options aren’t really needed in the suites: the
Air on the G String
might be another matter. Here, Bach’s constantly moving line, the resonant acoustic, and the marimba’s innate warmth combine to create the illusion of legato, much as with a piano. Not that legato should be universally employed in Bach: Thrasher is well aware that articulation adds vitality and contrast. And while I said that the cello is sometimes more vigorous in attack, that doesn’t mean that the marimba can’t be played energetically, it’s just that the sound is cushioned.
Thrasher is lively in the energetic dance movements and peaceful in the preludes and sarabandes. She shapes the music with a fluctuating, but not excessive rubato that, along with skillfully graduated dynamics, enhances its rhetoric. Originally undertaken to share with other marimbists, these transcriptions should please anyone who isn’t intractably fixed on the cello as the only conceivable choice in this music. While it’s true that the drama is differently clothed, Bach’s famously “pure” music thrives in any instrumental setting. Transcription is alluring—and we know that Bach indulged himself often—because it allows more musicians to recreate the music while giving listeners a new perspective. So purists, don’t fret, the cello suites will still be there after you’ve heard the marimba at play. Rumor has it that there’s an excellent ukulele Bach recital available . . .
FANFARE: Robert Schulslaper
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