Released on 9 September 2005
The Passacaglia and other keyboard works, transcribed for viols
This is wholeheartedly reccommended – utterly beautful music, some of the most sublime music ever written, and played with the sort of ensemble brilliance and insight that characterises all of Fretwork’s distinguished catalogue. For example: the 2nd track has the chorale prelude Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein played in four parts. The three lower parts played with a gentle, unfocussed sound, and the treble played with a slightly nasal tone, bowed nearer to the bridge. It’s remarkably close to an organ registration and wonderfully effective.
The big piece is the 5-part Passacaglia in C minor (BWV582) (actually, they play it in A minor) and it’s the most compelling listening you can imagine. The overall shaping is wonderfully controlled, with graded dynamics, including one section played pizzicato – without missing a beat. There are pieces from the Well-tempered Clavier, Clavierübung, and, inevitably, the 6-part Ricercar from the Musical Offering. This is perhaps the ideal medium for this piece. The full consort’s completely clear sound builds to an enthrallingly full sonority, which can sound over-blown on violins. It’s enormously satisfying listening, and will give continued pleasure.
Robert Oliver, Early Music Review
The musicians of Fretwork are in playful mood. Their creative energy is one of the many qualities that mark them out and in this recording they have turned their talents to Bach, who did write for single viols, and on two occasions for two, though never for a consort. That Bach would never have had access to one, John Butt (the authoritive booklet writer) acknowledges, does not mean the medium wouldn’t have appealed, and I am inclined to agree.
Richard Boothby has skilfully arranged and transcribed a number of keyboard works for three to five viols. The impression is at first peculiar and then deeply fascinating. The most successful are the pieces originally composed for the organ; they sound most familiar because viols can be made to sound organ-like (as in track 1).
One of the true delights of this recording is the way in which the listener hears each part so distinctly within homogeneous textures. The Passacaglia in C minor is definitely not to be missed and the final track is meant to amuse!
Julie Anne Sadie, Gramophone
From its first CD recordings nearly 20 years ago (actually, I believe the first was titled “Heart’s Ease”, on Virgin Classics in 1988), the viol consort known as Fretwork set a formidable standard for technical acuity and stylistic integrity–but the group also recognized the vital importance of sound, of timbre, as a defining quality of its performances. So you could always count on Fretwork’s recordings to present a realistic sonic experience of these instruments which, particularly when combined in consort create a uniquely full-bodied, rich, reedy resonance that you feel as well as hear, especially if the playing is properly tuned and the instruments well matched.
In its exclusive relationship with Harmonia Mundi Fretwork has continued its tradition of interesting programming and first-class sound engineering. And of course, the playing, as experienced on this new disc of Bach transcriptions drawn from keyboard works, is similarly world-class. While Bach’s organ and harpsichord pieces have often been transcribed for other instruments, I’ve never heard any done in this manner by a viol consort, and while we lose some of the originals’ seamlessly integrated lines and textures, the domain of a single player and instrument, we gain the experience of hearing those same lines more independently, and thus with a new perspective on internal balances and melodic function. And it’s simply refreshing to hear these works—especially those from the Clavierübung (Part III, the set for organ)—so differently articulated with bows (and in a couple of instances, with plucking fingers!) and alternatively phrased by the communal will of a seasoned ensemble.
When transcribing keyboard works for several separate instruments, you often have to break up lines and alter registers (and occasionally keys), and sometimes, as with the 11-minute Passacaglia in C minor BWV 582, the sheer length and complexity of it all leads to a cumbersome or awkward moment now and then, where registers don’t quite balance or lines don’t flow as easily as they should. But these situations are rare here, as these fine players take us from highlight to highlight, including a dazzling rendition of the Fugue in E-flat major “St. Anne” BWV 552 and a similarly impressive “Ricercar” from the Musical Offering. The F major Prelude & Fugue from WTC Book 2 is another treat, and the canon fragment lifted from the famous Haußmann portrait of Bach makes a charmingly lighthearted conclusion to a weighty (in the best sense of the word) program. Excellent liner notes by acclaimed Bach performer/scholar John Butt completes one of the more musically satisfying and finely produced recordings of 2005. [12/6/2005]
David Vernier, Classics Today
J.S.Bach is not known to have written any music for viol consort and likely never had such an ensemble available for his used. Yet this new disc from the British group Fretwork makes a compelling argument for the effectiveness for this particular sonic medium for realising Bach’s instrumental works, especially the “abstract” cycles of the composer’s final decade.
The crispness of articulation, the clarity of texture, the rich palette of hues (ranging from a sombre gravitas to a rarified lightness) that characterize the performances of these six viol players vividley convey the rationalist and at the same time transcendently spiritual aspect of Bach’s late polyphonic compilations, such the Clavierübung III and A Muisical Offering.
The disc includes two early works to illustrate the centrality of the direction of Bach’s last period throughout his career: the Pièce d’Orgue, BWV 572, and the Passacaglia in C minor BWV 582, the latter being a monumental composition comparable to the famous D minor violin chaccone and presented in an intense, forceful 11-minute rendition by the performers. Four fugues from The Well-Tempereed Clavier, a generous segment of Clavierübung III, including the “St. Anne” fugue and the six-part ricercar from A Musical Offering constitute the bulk of this deeply impressive offering by Fretwork. Appropriately rounding out the selection of some of Bach’s most moving and profound music is the so-called “deathbed” chorale “Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit”.
Jen-yen Chen, Early Music America
Catalogue number: HMU 907395