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Bach: Goldberg Variations / Fretwork

Bach,J.s. / Fretwork
Release Date: 11/08/2011 
Label:  Harmonia Mundi   Catalog #: 907560  
Composer:  Johann Sebastian Bach
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Fretwork
Number of Discs: 2 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BACH Goldberg Variations Fretwork HARMONIA MUNDI 907560 (2 CDs: 90:15)

This is an arrangement by member Richard Boothby for the consort of six viols known collectively as Fretwork. In the translation from the keyboard original, Boothby had to transpose or retune several passages, due to the fact that the keyboard writing tends toward the outer ends of the instrument. In writing his transcription, Boothby discovered that the tenor viols were losing out. He describes his solution as follows:
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“I’ve tried to remedy this by taking the treble part of three variations (3, 7, and 25) down an octave (more or less); in 25, this requires the tenor to tune the lowest string down a tone, and one of the basses likewise to tune a low G, rather than A.”

One may wonder what advantage, if any, there is in transcribing the Goldberg Variations for viols. Boothby claims that because the work was conceived for a harpsichord with “two keyboards with differing colors,” the arrangement for viols brings “a different emphasis to the work, clarifying the contrapuntal nature of all the canons, the Fughetta, and Alla breve, and the Quodlibet.” For those of us who can already hear the different voices within this work on a single keyboard instrument, this may seem superfluous, but there is no question that the highly musical and intelligent approach that Fretwork brings to the piece is refreshing and welcome.

Fretwork is a typical British HIP group in that it adheres 100 percent of the time to the Religion of Straight Tone. Not a single note held by any of the six instruments betrays even the slightest hint of vibrato, nor is there much rhythmic variation. On the other hand, Fretwork plays with a remarkable range of dynamic shadings as well as with an elasticity of phrasing that just seems to come naturally. In short, the players combine the best of both worlds, pin-neat vibratoless tone with relaxation of phrasing.

Although I was not overly concerned about the music’s transcription to a consort of viols, which was explained anyway, what did puzzle me was the extraordinary length of the performance, over 90 minutes. The only other recording of the work I’ve heard that fell in line with this was Rosalyn Tureck’s famous traversal of the music, and Tureck accomplished this by slowing down the tempos of virtually every variation. Since Fretwork obviously did not do this, I wondered where the extra music came from. Not having access to a score, but having other recordings of the Goldberg s, I did some side-by-side comparisons. The two recordings I chose for comparison were Glenn Gould, not the famed 1955 Columbia version but a live version from CBC radio the year before (which I prefer for its more enlivened inflections and subtle rubato), and a recording by Jean Guillou on the Kleuker Organ of the Notre Dame Church of Neiges, Alpe d’Huez. I chose not to listen to my Wanda Landowska recording from the 1930s on harpsichord.

Some of Fretwork’s timings are just slightly different from Gould and Gullou, but many are quite extreme. To give you the timings of the variations I compared:

Variation 1: Gould, 55 seconds; Guillou, 59 seconds; Fretwork, 2:38.

Variation 2: Gould, 44 seconds; Guillou, 1:27; Fretwork, 1:31.

Variation 3: Gould, 1:18; Guillou, 1:34; Fretwork, 2: 24.

At this point, I moved ahead to variations where the timings were extremely different:

Variation 13: Gould, 2:57; Guillou, 4:17; Fretwork, 6: 31.

Variation 15: Gould, 2:32; Guillou, 2:34; Fretwork, 4: 52.

Variation 25: Gould, 4:22; Guillou, 5:52; Fretwork, 7: 40.

OK, so what’s going on here? Without a score, I had to rely on my ears, and as we all know, Bach is really quite difficult to follow without a score despite his being a tonal composer, especially in highly developed pieces. So please forgive me if I make any slips here, but this is what I think I hear:

Variation 1: Both Gould and Guillou are crisp and brisk. Guillou, having an organ with nice, bright registration and excellent contrasts in the various stops, is able to delineate the different strands of the music better than Gould. Fretwork, for technical or musical reasons (who knows which?), simply plays this variation very slowly, in fact twice as slow as Guillou.

Variation 2: Gould plays at a nice allegretto tempo. Guillou plays even faster, but what I would call the middle section sounds like different music to me, and this section is repeated. Fretwork chooses Guillou’s tempo, and also plays the extra music heard in the Guillou version.

Variation 3: Gould takes a nice, relaxed walking tempo with rubato. Guillou is brisker, but the first section is repeated. Fretwork chooses Gould’s more relaxed tempo but repeats some music like Guillou.

Variation 13: Gould plays it as a true andante . Guillou chooses to present it as an Adagio. Fretwork is much closer to Gould’s tempo, but sections are repeated. The viols really sound whiny in this variation, not a pleasant sound.

Variation 15 is actually marked Andante , one of the few movements to have a tempo indication. Gould observes this very closely—good for him! Guillou takes virtually the same tempo, but with the softer attack of organ keys in a slow movement, it sounds more legato and the phrasing is a bit different. Fretwork actually plays this movement faster than both Gould and Guillou, but again the first section is repeated.

Variation 25 also has a tempo indication, in this case Adagio . Gould follows this to the letter. Guillou, however, takes it slower, closer to a Lento , which may simply be a French interpretation of Adagio . Fretwork’s tempo is almost the same as Gould’s, but with several repeats.

And so it goes. Overall, this is a nice traversal of the Goldberg s—variation 20, for instance, starts out with a simply delightful pizzicato that they return to when the opening theme returns—but if your ears can’t hear the different voices of the music in even Gould’s performance, the problem is yours, not Bach’s. I find Guillou’s version on organ to be wonderfully rich and diverse enough in the different voices to give more dimension to the music without almost doubling its length, as Fretwork does, but in the end, the decision to acquire this set is yours. If you really want the Goldberg Variations played by a consort of viols, you certainly won’t be disappointed. Fretwork is, as I mentioned, a really fine early-music group, and despite the occasional whining, this is a good performance.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Fretwork
Period: Baroque 
Written: 1741-1742; Nuremberg, Germany 
Notes: Arrangement: Richard Boothby 

Featured Sound Samples

Goldberg Variations, BWV 988: Variation 2
Variation 30. Quodlibet

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