I came to Bach’s Goldberg Variations somewhat early in my listening career (which, admittedly is strange to call a career, but I assume you get what I am saying, that period in my life beginning at some point while I was under the age of 18, when I first discovered Baroque music (really, Bach’s music)—or did it find me?—and while I liked what I heard on the surface, the profundity of the collection of an Aria and 30 variations was somewhat wasted on my youth and inability to comprehend what Mr. Pinnock was doing, when he performed catalog number 988) and so I with anything now familiar, I enjoy the opportunity to hear it anew. You can hear a piece of music anew—with fresh ears, to use an another idiom—several different ways. We can go hear a live performance and watch the performers. Or, we can follow the score, and watch the music go by on the page as it is performed. We can also hear a new recording, perhaps one that makes some novel adjustment to the original source, and maybe they have no business doing that novel thing, but we suspend judgement long enough to see what that novelty offers. With the viol consort Fretwork, they offer us the opportunity to hear the Goldbergs anew through their (Richard Campbell, specifically) arrangement for a set of “even more ancient than Bach” instruments. The novelty really isn’t something we should be so impressed by, because they are not the first to arrange the Goldberg Variations for strings. For me, to ultimately be successful, they have to do better than those renditions that came before, to offer something more than an “ooh ma, look—they’re playing it on strings!” encounter. They need to touch me emotionally with the music. That is correct, I know it already has that capability on its own, performed on the piano, or the more originally-intentioned, fair-tuned harpsichord. What does playing in viol consort with keyboard music add?
For those who have no concept of what this music is, I’ll really need you to go search elsewhere for the expertise to fully understand. In short, Bach finished, in the span of less than 10 years before he died, a monumental large-scale work for keyboard which he titled “Aria with 30 variations.” Like his later Art of Fugue, this piece fully-explores his capacity of keyboard art. It takes a theme first expressed in the bass line in what appears to be a simple sarabande and then applies all kinds of contortions to produce 30 “retakes” on this theme, variations. As much as these variations challenge us intellectually, they are also challenging to performers who tackle this work.
The viol consort will forever be associated with the music of Lawes, Gibbons, and Byrd. Purcell gets performed on viols, but I find his music too good for the meek sound of a viol consort. There, I said it. I am not in love with the sound of a consort of viols. If given a choice, I’d go all Italian on you and choose violins, violas, and cellos. All that under-bowing might be a little disappointing to me. “But John, there were composers, like the aforementioned Lawes, Gibbons, or Byrd for that matter, who wrote their music for a consort of viols. It’s historically accurate, and no matter what you think, that’s how that music was composed, celebrated, and heard!”
I get it. But I guarantee you, there were no active viol consorts performing in Leipzig, Germany when Bach completed his set of variations, circa 1742. Why should we even entertain viols for Goldbergs?
Now before you think that on philosophical grounds that I’m going to dismiss this recordings on account of the pedigree of the instruments used (and to say nothing about the performers, who, are very much today alive), let me just say that why aren’t there Goldbergs on banjos and stratocasters? I’m just suggesting…
Yes, I actually liked Fretwork’s earlier Bach recording, Alio Modo and I thought the viol consort sound suited many of the pieces they selected for that “top hits” CD. I was less enthusiastic about their recording of the Art of Fugue, and so this recording falls in between those two. If one was 5 stars, the other 3, this I would award 4.
There is something nutty, organic, and human about the sound of viols. I don’t know why I have this association, but I do. They instruments have issues playing extremely fast and clear, and maybe that’s why some tracks on this CD are slightly more leisurely than what I typically prefer (on keyboard). Yet, that old-fashioned sound quality really gets me in some of these variations (not to mention the Aria), and I was even tickled to hear them occasionally switch to pizzicato technique for a variation in sound.
Does the performance let me hear this work anew? Indeed! There is a certain clarity that comes about for each line of music when it’s being performed by more than one person. And the contrapuntal nature of Bach’s music is often better off when those lines are clear to us when we listen. In some cases, Fretwork really relaxes and let’s the music breathe. It’s allowed to become viol music, instead of the players trying to tackle keyboard music on the wrong instruments.
Inside the booklet is an essay by John Butt, a keyboard player and scholar, that is among one of the best essays to appear with a recording. Yeah, I learned from the notes. There is little doubt on my part that these guys took this project seriously and tried to make it right. The recorded sound quality is intimate but robust, separated well across the stereo image. There are a few variations that I may have taken in a different way, but that’s okay. As a whole, I like their approach and thought the album was a worthy project. The final aria, the 25 variation, the Quodlibet, and all those canons were all highlights.
Even though this piece, which can last over an hour in length, has been with my for the better part of my life, I continued to grow with it in the hands and hearts of Fretwork. Warmly recommended.