‘A new way of thinking about classical music and improvisation’ and ‘historical music practice in a contemporary form’ is the intriguing concept behind ‘Bach Stories’, which feels very much like an offering with which Warner is hoping for some popular appeal, albeit not at the expense of sending more serious classical listeners running for the hills.
So what exactly does all the above mean? Well, modern instruments and pitch for a start, and indeed genuinely modern instruments too, because Aleksander Zdunik’s cello is made by the respected Polish luthier Wojciech Topa. The first disc is devoted to Bach’s sonatas for viola da gamba; played with no improvisational surprises and a strong but not slavish period awareness, these serve as a happy reminder that historically informed Bach performance doesn’t have to mean gut and pluck to carry worth.
With the second disc the aforementioned concept comes fully into play, because here Dębicz and Zdunik’s sensitive Bach chorale transcriptions have been punctuated with their own improvisatory responses to them, and the emotional and stylistic directions these have taken often carry us off to surprisingly profound new musical waters – sometimes loosely rooted in form and tonality, at other times freer on all levels as thoughts unfurl. Note the ‘often’ rather than ‘always’, though, because while Dębicz took the 2013 Transatlantyk Instant Composition Contest for improvising composer-musicians, these improvs do occasionally skirt dangerously close to the sort of superficial classical crossover music that aims to push people’s emotional buttons with minimum compositional effort.
Interestingly, the streamed version of this album is ordered slightly differently, with a cantata transcription slipped in after each of the disc 1 sonatas, and I found myself appreciating both listening experiences in equal measure. Indeed, on the whole, this is an album to appreciate if you can relax about the second disc’s occasional whiff of classical chill-out.