Ensemble Marsyas Record Works by J.F. Fasch
When I was at the Lufthansa Baroque Festival several years ago in May, I heard a version of Ensemble Marsyas perform at St. John’s Smith Square. With one of their newest releases, I picked up a digital copy based on a quick preview that I liked, featuring bassoonist Peter Whelan and recorder player Pamela Thorby.
This recording was made in the very sympathetic space of Wigmore Hall for chamber music; I wish more recordings were made here. The ensemble plays in a historically-informed way using baroque (or copy) instruments. The album is 72 minutes in length, and features music that was both new to me and some that was familiar. Included are quartets that include horn, recorder, and bassoon in lead roles. 8 works in total, the recital is first-rate chamber music that is most reminiscent of Telemann.
Fasch is a fan, evidently, of the four-movement structure so favored by Telemann. The liner notes included with this album confirm his affinity for Telemann through a story where Fasch faked attribution by Telemann to one of his own works before he had established himself as a composer. He was a semi-amateur musician who thankfully later found employ as a composer, but not without the struggles too common today of not finding riches as a composer.
While the sound quality of the recording is first rate, including a clarity captured that allows us to enjoy the “flavor” of each instrument on its own quite easily, I found the ensemble’s choice of tempos at times to be too slow in a few of the slower movements. A good example is the 13th track, an Allegro featuring the bassoon. Whelan’s sound is exquisitely rich and full-bodied, and there are ornaments that seem to dictate the necessity of slowing down things just a bit… but overall the pulse isn’t swift enough for my taste. That said, their following largo doesn’t suffer the same want for speed, instead, I find their interpretation (timbre, dynamics, and tempo) quite nicely chosen. The following movement is not only nicely wrought, but played too. Perhaps it is unfair of me to criticize Marsyas too much for the choice in tempo, given the notes Fasch has written…
The concerto for recorder is in 3 movements, and I found the third to be fast enough; the first is a too timid in both tempo and the volume of the recorder. And that’s always an issue with historically-informed recordings with recorder: the instrument is not a loud one; here, the violins seem well-adjusted to Thorby’s instrument, but the continuo is more forward causing a little issue with balance. In fact, the recorder sounds further away from the microphones than the continuo team. As much as the playing is first rate, with special note of the lute contribution from Thomas Dunford. Should a recording engineer fake the volume of a recorder by boosting it’s volume within a mix with other instruments? Likely not, but in this recording it sounds as if I’m listening more to Thorby’s reflection off the wall than the the instrument itself. Thorby sounds great when she’s in her higher register, but the lower one shows off the weakness of the recorder.
The “Recorder Quartet” in B-flat (tracks 23-26) include oboe and violins to the ensemble in which Thorby is up against some louder competition. Again, in the higher register she’s well balanced, it’s only when the lower end of the instrument appear do things become unbalanced. I may have to accept that this is the other side of “authenticity".
To conclude, this is a nice collection of chamber music by Fasch. There are a few times when I wished the ensemble had pushed the tempo a bit, or when I could hear the recorder a little more clearly. But these are very critical quibbles compared to the overall result which is a strong recital by a younger new ensemble with some star guests. In a few pieces, Fasch is clearly rubbing elbows with Telemann and is an equal composer; the horn quartet was however my least favorite. With the heavy emphasis in some works of oboe and bassoon, Fasch’s style also reminds me of Zelenka (a composer this same ensemble has recorded). In the context of what typically we hear as “mainstream baroque,” Fasch is fresh and clearly “late baroque.” Ensemble Marsyas comes across as a strong ensemble, but not to the same technical polish and confidence “high” of the former Musica Antiqua Köln. The standout in this release is Peter Weylan whose intonation and sound seems to be one cut above the rest.