J.S. BACH–Alio modo

Review by: David Vernier

Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

From its first CD recordings nearly 30 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 Clavier-Übung (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. [originally posted 12/6/2005]



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Recording Details:

Album Title: J.S. BACH--Alio modo

Passacaglia & other keyboard works transcribed for viols -


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