The Ensemble Contraste has recorded a number of transcriptions of J.S. Bach for violin (Arnaud Thorette), viola (Maria Mosconi), cello (Antoine Pierlot), and piano (Johan Farjot and Karol Beffa). The notes speak of the transcriptions as a play between "shadow and light."
By bringing together works from different keyboards and vocal ensembles, as well as various forms (motets, passions and cantatas), this recording gives precedence to musical content over the medium; the idea supersedes the technique. the unique and brilliant composer did not gloss over the fact that the era, concerned with exchanges between the different european schools, allowed musicians to copy, transcribe and adapt the work of contemporaries.
They also note their choice in instruments and color; the violin has been prepared with baroque strings and bow; the alto is a "partial" conversion, and the cello is left in a modern configuration. They also treat the piano less "romantic" than they might with other repertoire.
Our work was to clear up the harmonic and contrapuntal underpinnings of this music. this gives a nearly carnal aspect to certain pieces.
There was a lot going against me liking this release, likely, on the surface: a mixture of contemporary/baroque instruments, but I have found myself choosing to listen to it frequently since purchase. My favorite track is the Passacaglia for organ BWV 582; it is simply sublimely realized by these musicians. It is not surprise that they write about each really liking Bach as a composer. The love is there. And the piece shows them to be great interpreters of the music.
Another favorite is the opening work, the organ chorale on Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland, BWV 659, which I also really have enjoyed performed by Bruno Cocset in a more "baroque" fashion. This one is slower and a little more cautious, but nevertheless, absolutely beautiful. The piano mixed with the strings make for a good contrast of sound and timbre.
The motet BWV 225 "Singet Dem Herrn"'s opening movement as track 4 comes across less successfully for me; it may have to do with the fact that this is my least favorite of Bach's motets.
I do applaud their interest, however, into making "instrumental pieces" out of Bach's vocal works. The translations reveal what I've always known about Bach's musical writing, that it is so strong that it survives transcription, re-arrangement, different performance treatments, and underneath the text, is still a strong foundation that moves us.
I am also a big fan of Bach's Musical offering, and the ensemble chooses the 6-part ricercare which is very well done.
My only quibble with the recording is that I don't think each track goes into the next to make a strong "album" in the way some (modern) ensembles program their tracks; some seem too similar to one another (track 2-3, for instance) and others are too different (3-4), but that is hardly anything to worry about. We can program our own "program" and we may ultimately choose not not treat the collection as "an album."
The musicians do, however, play consistently well across all tracks, and as I wrote earlier, their love for Bach comes through. The arrangements are all successful and both the instruments and recorded sound are treats to these ears. Highly recommended.