Steven Hancoff

In the late 1970s or early 1980s, I had a complaint about a radio station—a classical-music radio station. “Nothing but Karajan recordings and guitar transcriptions,” I said. An acoustic guitar can indeed be easy on the ears. It makes sense that radio programmers lean on it.

As for guitarists, they lean on transcriptions (as trumpeters, oboists, and others do). They have a healthy Spanish repertoire—every guitarist, no matter where he’s from, is part Spanish—but otherwise they have lived and died by transcriptions. Now Steven Hancoff has come along with the Six Cello Suites of Bach.

For his website—Hancoff’s, not Bach’s—go here.

Once, years ago, I was interviewing Christopher Parkening, the renowned guitarist. He said, “I love all the great composers, of course, but for me, there’s one who towers above all the others. And that composer is, of course . . .” And I broke in, saying, “Rodrigo.” Parkening laughed heartily, which pleased me.

(Rodrigo, you remember, is the composer of the world’s favorite guitar concerto, the Concierto de Aranjuez.)

As he plays the Cello Suites, Hancoff makes them sound like guitar music. Or perhaps Bach does this, in his infinite variety? Which age cannot wither nor custom stale? Naturally, a listener will argue with this or that track—I sometimes objected to what I thought was a surfeit of rubato—but of the player’s care and devotion, there is no doubt.

We are reminded, too, that Bach is Mr. Adaptability. From Leopold Stokowski to the Swingle Singers to the Morimur people to whatever comes next, he is still Bach, central and resplendent.

Pianists—or keyboard players, let’s say—have a ton of music that Bach wrote directly for them. That does not prevent them from swiping other people’s music, however. Brahms arranged the D-minor chaconne—written for violin alone—for piano left hand. Busoni arranged it for both hands. Rachmaninoff took the violinists’ E-major partita and gave himself a few nifty concert pieces.

That is greedy, and wonderful.

One more word, concerning my gibe from way back: about “Karajan recordings and guitar transcriptions.” I have a greater appreciation for the Austrian maestro than I once did. And one must not begrudge a guitar transcription, even if a radio station can go overboard with them.