There was something that turned me off to this release when it came out, which I now realize, had nothing to do with the actual performance contained within. I still remember my first purchase of a Fretwork CD when I was in college: it was of music by Dowland. It gave me a flavor for the ensemble, but also of the concept of a viol consort. I remember thinking it was all rather dark music, with a melancholy sweetness contained within, in part due to the sound of viols in general.
I have also collected recordings by their “cousins,” the ensemble known as Phantasm. Both are great ensembles, and have been successful, I hope, in their exploration of literature for viol ensemble. This release continues their exploration of music not originally intended for viol consort, not to mention music of Bach. I purchased their yellow-covered release of Die Kunst der Fuge as soon as it was released, but I can’t say for certain why I stayed away from this release on Harmonia Mundi in 2005.
Alio modo features arrangements of a variety of pieces by Bach: works for organ, for harpsichord, chorales, the six-part ricercare from BWV 1079 (The Musical Offering), and highlighted in the title is the great C-minor Passacaglia for organ, BWV 582. I purchased this release when preparing for my latest Bachcast episode featuring this piece, and I not only fell in love with the performance of the organ piece, but I really enjoyed the entire CD.
The ensemble has already collected many rave reviews which should speak for its strengths. One criticism I sometimes have for works by Bach is the impediments we might experience in trying to really hear, transparently, the music. As a general rule, Bach’s music is like a completed puzzle, and when pulling the different lines apart, it becomes apparent, under scrutiny of study, just what Bach has done, fitting those parts together in such a way that comes across as affective, moving music. The concept of original intention aside, sometimes Bach’s music gains something in new clothes, through arrangement. There’s something to be said for his contrapuntal music being realized by similar-sounding instruments (concord, or consort) and different-sounding instruments (discord). As an example, the woodwind ensemble Calefax has a really nice recording of Die Kunst der Fuge using modern woodwinds (oboe, sax, clarinets) that for me, is a stunning example of this second type of arrangement. The parts become crystal clear, because the timbre of different instruments are each unique, but together, they are not discordant, but rather blend nicely. (As a counter to this, I do not like the arrangement by Concerto Italiano of the same work, as I felt they made too many compromises in their arrangement.)
This recording brings together viols, instruments of different sizes to play within different ranges. The whole idea of a good string ensemble is how well the instruments blend. To be sure, good consorts should be able, when appropriate, sound as “one,” even though there may be 3 or more players. The sound of the viol is more gentle than that of the Italian violins and cellos. It is a sound that likely would have been foreign to Bach, save for the viola da gamba, an instrument Bach used, in part likely because of its reference to France. Yet the viol consort seems well-suited to this music, all of it, especially when it is well-recorded, maximizing the concept of concord and using the distance between instruments to bring clarity to individual lines.
Fretwork’s interpretations are all very well done, each taking, I believe, wise decisions on how to present each work. I also like the diversity among the selections. No doubt, the ensemble could have chosen any number of likely candidates. Their switch to pizzicato in the Passacaglia shows they thought carefully about how to show off the profound nature of many of these pieces.
Without reservation, I recommend this recording, even despite it’s age of some 10 years. There has been no freshness lost in the interpretations.