Released on 6 November 2002
More old music made new appears on Harmonia Mundi HMU 907296 when those wizards of the viols, Fretwork, tackle Bach’s mighty Art of Fugue. Musical acrostic puzzle? Last will and testament? The mysteries never end. Nor does the debate about the best means of performance (keyboard or instrumental group?). A viol consort proves a brilliant solution. Viols offer unity of tone (dark brown; great for minor-key melancholy). At the same time lines emerge clearly, evenly weighted: crucial for this monument to Bach’s second God, counterpoint, built out of fugal variations on a theme turned upside down, inside out, back to front.
Bach and Fretwork ensure that every track offers some tangible delight: the swung dotted rhythms in Contrapunctus 2, say, or the merrily scampering Canon alla Ottava, or the piquant sonorities of the viol duet in Canon alla Duodecima. This is not music that sits easily on performers’ fingers, but the six members of Fretwork make it appear so. Buy this CD now; cherish it forever.
Geoff Brown, The Times
For anyone wanting to get to grips with the myriad subtleties of Bach’s contrapuntal writing their playing offers a wonderfully faithful guide
Andrew Clements, The Guardian
There can be few more authentic if austere guides to Bach’s elaborate mysteries than the immaculate, cut-glass clarity of this highly accomplished sextet.
Anthony Holden, The Observer
A viol consort offers an excellent medium for conveying clearly the contrapunctal intricacies of Bach’s ‘The Art of Fugue’. The members of Fretwork offer a refreshing and musically satisfying alternative to the myriad keyboard versions available on disc.
Highlights for me include the overdotted French-overture style of Contrapunctus 6, the predominantly chromatic three-voiced Contrapunctus 8, the wonderful four-part triple fugue of Contrapunctus 11, the clear communication of the subtleties of the canons and, of course, the unfinished Contrapunctus 14 on three new themes, including B-A-C-H, which Fretwork considers the most plausible climax of Bach’s developing polyphonic masterpiece. This is responsive and spirited music making, full of expressive detail, yet sounding fresh and spontaneous. The recorded sound is exemplary.
Robin Stowell, The Strad
Everyone agrees that “The Art of the Fugue” is one of Bach’s crowning glories, but the ideal ensemble to play it remains a contentious issue. Bach left no definitive clue as to what he had in mind, so into the void has stepped everyone from organists to saxophone ensembles.
Fretwork, the exemplary British viol ensemble….offers the most compelling account I’ve heard since the Juilliard String Quartet’s recording a decade ago. Fretwork marries a liquid tonal blend with a finely etched approach to rhythm and dynamics, untangling Bach’s contrapuntal puzzles with uncommon beauty, poise and interpretive imagination.
Mark Stryker, The Salt Lake Tribune
Fretwork’s decidedly retro approach to Bach’s much-arranged and incessantly fiddled-with unfinished ‘last’ opus is among the simplest and therefore most effective renditions on disc. This renowned ensemble takes on Bach’s somewhat ambiguously scored and variously configured collection of fugues (contrapuncti) and canons and performs them on combinations of viols (six in all). Although the evidence points most strongly to this work being intended for keyboard performance – and indeed it nearly always comes off best when realised this way – Fretwork’s viol-consort settings preserve important linear and harmonic balances inherent in a single-instrument rendition while imbuing each movement with the viols’ naturally warm, complexly-coloured, reedy timbres. While the more densely-textured movements can lose some definition in places – where the resonance of the lower-register instruments dominates – these performances are more coherent and cohesive and clearly articulated than any of the available versions scored for assortments of wind and strings. Although invariably interesting as exercises and often sonically exciting, these latter ‘deconstructive’ transcriptions/arrangements have a distracting effect on the listener, calling attention to individual lines rather than to the well-formed unity of the whole.
Fretwork’s players deliver nothing less than polished, involving and faithful-to-the-score performances (albeit with their own ordering of movements), ever vigilant to balances and nuances of phrasing. And their trueness to Bach remains constant to the end, where they choose the honoured practice of performing the final ‘Fuga a 3 Soggetti’ unfinished, leaving the listener in mid-sentence, to abrupt, unsettling silence. The whole effort is supported by full-bodied, vibrant sound with excellent spatial definition among and between instruments. If you want to get to know this intriguing and endlessly fascinating work, this is a perfect place to start; if you’re a Bach fan and you don’t have it, get it.
David Vernier, Classics Today
Catalogue number: Harmonia Mundi USA HMU 907296