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Fretwork's Anachronistic Goldberg Variations

This article was first published at The Classical Review on January 23, 2012.

available at Amazon
J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Fretwork

(released on November 8, 2011)
HMU 907560 | 1h30
The sheer ingenuity of J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations has led to an incalculable number of adaptations of the work for other instruments. Music this good can certainly withstand the pulling and bending
of transcription, something that Bach himself did with the music of other composers.

The best of these transcriptions -- the re-thinking for two pianos by Joseph Rheinberger adapted by Max Reger (recorded by Tal and Groethuysen for Sony); Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s pioneering version for string trio (Julian Rachlin, Mischa Maisky, and Nobuko Imai, Deutsche Grammophon), later enlarged, even more strikingly, for chamber orchestra (NES Chamber Orchestra, Nonesuch); the expansion for full Romantic organ by Wilhelm Middelschulte (Jürgen Sonnentheil, cpo); and even the cool-cat reworking for jazz trio by Jacques Loussier (Telarc) -- update the work for more recent instrumental possibilities.

This new recording by the viol consort Fretwork, an ensemble of six viola da gamba players, does the reverse by arranging the piece for instruments that antedate the score. Bach was, of course, familiar with the viola da gamba -- he wrote three sonatas for the instrument with harpsichord accompaniment (BWV 1027-1029) -- but his treatment of it in the Sixth Brandenburg Concerto shows that he regarded it as an antique curiosity, one primarily included for the enjoyment of his princely employer in Köthen, who played it.

The seemingly anachronistic choice to transcribe Bach for viola da gamba is not unprecedented. Paolo Pandolfo has made a beautiful recording of the cello suites on the instrument (Glossa), and like that version, while Fretwork’s transcription of the Goldberg Variations is not convincing at all times, there is still much to enjoy.

The best parts of this recording are strangely compelling because of the appealing qualities of the instrument: its round, sweet tone; eerily human cantabile quality; dance-like agility; and range of dynamic possibilities. That last quality makes for a moody, almost whispered ‘Variation 25’, that most enigmatic slow movement cast by Bach in a heavily chromatic minor mode.

The advantage of having multiple instruments is not only the independence that can be attained with contrapuntal textures, allowing the listener to unravel the score’s imitative complexities -- one of the failings of the virtuosic but ultimately monochromatic transcription for harp by Catrin Finch (Deutsche Grammophon) -- but the variations that are possible on repetitions.

The beautiful ‘Aria’ that opens the piece is set at a very slow tempo, not quite as glacial as that taken by Glenn Gould in his second recording of the work, with the melody given to one dulcet treble viol (occasionally a second treble viol takes up Bach’s intermittent alto part). The first time the group plays the ‘Aria’, the accompaniment is all set in pizzicato on lower instruments, and it is a nice touch to alter the arrangement in its reprise at the end with a mixture of arco and pizzicato accompaniment.

The tempos are not always as fast as they could be, as in the leisurely first variation with two viols splitting the texture. The most virtuosic variations required some clever rewriting, pushing the players and their instruments (tuned to A=392) to the edge, as with the pulsating triplets of Variation 26, producing some unpleasant results. Richard Boothby’s arrangement shares the wealth among his three pairs of different-sized viols, giving some of the variations, like the somber Variation 3, to the lower instruments. In the most successful variations, the contrast of timbre and articulation, such as the short accompaniment notes of Variation 5 being played pizzicato, is especially pleasing.

While probably not a ‘must-have’ recording, fans of the Goldberg Variations or of the sound of the viola da gamba will likely be tickled.

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