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J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations (Fretwork) Double CD

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J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations (Fretwork) + J.S. Bach: The Art of Fugue (Fretwork) Catalogue CD
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Product details

  • Conductor: n/a
  • Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach
  • Audio CD (1 Nov. 2011)
  • Number of Discs: 2
  • Format: Double CD
  • Label: harmonia mundi
  • ASIN: B00585QLWI
  • Other Editions: MP3 Download
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 98,888 in Music (See Top 100 in Music)

1. Aria
2. Variation 1 a 1 Clavier
3. Variation 2 a 1 Clavier
4. Variation 3 a 1 Clavier: Canone All'unisono
5. Variation 4 a 1 Clavier
6. Variation 5 a 1 O Vero 2 Clavier
7. Variation 6 a 1 Clavier: Canone Alla Seconda
8. Variation 7 a 1 O Vero 2 Clavier: Al Tempo Di Giga
9. Variation 8 a 2 Clavier
10. Variation 9: Canone Alla Terza a 1 Clavier
11. Variation 10: Fughetta a 1 Clavier
12. Variation 11 a 2 Clavier
13. Variation 12: Canone Alla Quarta a 1 Clavier
14. Variation 13 a 2 Clavier
15. Variation 14 a 2 Clavier
16. Variation 15: Canone Alla Quinta a 1 Clavier
17. Variation 16: Ouverture a 1 Clavier
18. Variation 17 a 2 Clavier
19. Variation 18: Canone Alla Sexta a 1 Clavier
20. Variation 19 a 1 Clavier
See all 32 tracks on this disc

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Sid Nuncius #1 HALL OF FAMETOP 50 REVIEWER on 29 Jan. 2012
Format: Audio CD
The Goldberg Variations lend themselves well to different instruments (I have fantastic versions on piano, harpsichord and harp) and Bach himself was an inveterate transcriber and arranger of his own music so the idea of the Goldbergs for viol consort is certainly within the composer's own idiom. However, the sound and capability of a viol consort is a long way from the original keyboard for which these were written and that presents some pretty big challenges to the transcriber, to the performers and to the listener. I think these are only partially met in this recording.

Richard Boothby is a superb musician and the Purcell Quartet's recording of his transcriptions of Bach's Trio Sonatas is one of my favourite discs Bach: Trio Sonatas BWV525-530. Some of the variations here work just as well, particularly the canonic variations which are a delight, and the deeply meditative Variation 15 is simply wonderful. However, some other variations don't work nearly so well. I have no complaint about the transcriptions, which are skilful and preserve Bach's structures very well, but the dazzling runs in Variation 28, for example, just sound a little ponderous here and they don't give the necessary lightness to balance the thundering chords between them. Similarly, the Aria is a wonderful piece and certainly sounds pretty good here, but crucial detail is missing in order to allow the viol consort to play it. For example there is a tiny, crotchet-length descending arpeggio at the start of Bar 11 which under Angela Hewitt's fingers glows with beauty, and here is simply missing.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By C. W. Robbins on 14 Aug. 2013
Format: Audio CD
I am a fervent admirer of Fretwork since their beginnings in the 1980s. In various incarnations as well as Fretwork itself, the Fretwork people have transformed the world of viol consorts. The line-up has changed over the years but I am glad to see that the beautiful Susanna Pell is still bestowing her remarkable musicianship on the group.

That said, with due reverence,this - although there are some magical moments - was an adaptation too far. Robert Boothby is almost apologetic about it in his note - and rightly so.

For me the problems start with the Aria: the treble viols just do not express the lyricism of this melody and making the variation-theme pizzicato does not do it justice either. For the first time, I had difficulty adapting to the sound world of the viols: they invariably sound a bit strange to modern ears but here I also became aware how difficult they are to play. And THAT is exactly what has to be avoided. I also fear that trying to give a role to the tenor viols (especially var. 3 and 7) just does not work: Bach's right hand is just that. Tamper with it at your peril.

After their beautiful Bach disc, "Alio Modo", this is a great disappointment.

May I also be grumpy about the ghastly plastic case for the CD. Why not a cardboard one?
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 5 reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Perhaps not a work to transcribe for viols 30 Jan. 2012
By Sid Nuncius - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
The Goldberg Variations lend themselves well to different instruments (I have fantastic versions on piano, harpsichord and harp) and Bach himself was an inveterate transcriber and arranger of his own music so the idea of the Goldbergs for viol consort is certainly within the composer's own idiom. However, the sound and capability of a viol consort is a long way from the original keyboard for which these were written and that presents some pretty big challenges to the transcriber, to the performers and to the listener. I think these are only partially met in this recording.

Richard Boothby is a superb musician and Purcell Quartet's recording of his transcriptions of Bach's Trio Sonatas is one of my favourite discs Bach, J.S.: Trio Sonatas, Bwv 525-530. Some of the variations here work just as well, particularly the canonic variations which are a delight, and the deeply meditative Variation 15 is simply wonderful. However, some other variations don't work nearly so well. I have no complaint about the transcriptions, which are skilful and preserve Bach's structures very well, but the dazzling runs in Variation 28, for example, just sound a little ponderous here and they don't give the necessary lightness to balance the thundering chords between them. Similarly, the Aria is a wonderful piece and certainly sounds pretty good here, but crucial detail is missing in order to allow the viol consort to play it. For example there is a tiny, crotchet-length descending arpeggio at the start of Bar 11 which under Angela Hewitt's fingers glows with beauty, and here is simply missing. Details like this make the difference between a quite good performance and a very good or great one and this, sadly, is only quite good.

I am sorry to be critical of this disc - I love Fretwork's discs as a rule. They play beautifully here and the recording captures their wonderful, rich sound excellently. I also like and respect Richard Boothby's work very much. I just think that this transcription doesn't quite work - and if Boothby can't quite make it work, I suspect no-one can. There is enough to enjoy here to warrant a four-star rating, I think, but only a qualified recommendation, I'm afraid.

(For a really wonderfully played string arrangement of the Goldbergs I would warmly recommend the Leopold String Trio on Hyperion: Bach: Goldberg Variations)
10 of 14 people found the following review helpful
It Doesn't Work, Friends. It just doesn't work. 18 Jan. 2012
By Reviewer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
Reiko Ichise, Asako Morikawa, Susana Pell, Richard Boothby, Richard Tunicliffe, Liam Byne, homage to you! You are the current artists of Fretwork, the consort of violas da gamba that has delighted me and millions of others (millions? Don't you wish!) for twenty years or more. Your recordings of the unique British repertoire of "closed consort" music for gambas, by such composers as Tye, Byrd, Jenkins, Locke, and Purcell, have been consistently excellent and have brought to life the the music of England's "Golden Age". It's a repertoire, in my opinion, which ranks alongside the string quartets of Haydn and Mozart. Here are some of your sans pareil successes:
Purcell: Fantazias & In Nomines feat. Fretwork
Locke: Consort of Fower Parts
I Heard a Voice: The music of the golden age
In Nomine: 16th Century English Music for Viols Including the Complete Consort Music of Thomas Tallis - Fretwork

Nevertheless, you've embarrassed yourselves with this performance. Yes, yes, I know the impulse behind playing The Goldberg Variations in an arrangement for gambas, and it's a worthy impulse. After all, you've ably expanded the repertoire for your instruments beyond its historical boundaries by performing Italian and German works conceived for voices; there's ample evidence that 16th/17th C instrumentalists often poached on the singers also. And you've pioneered, commissioned, performed contemporary music for gambas. Bravo for all that! I can imagine also that when you gather, in some baronial mansion in Surrey or Berkshire, you might play anything from the Codex Calixtinus to Abbey Road for fun. That's where this reading of The Goldberg Variations should have stayed, in your parlor with perhaps a glowing fire and a basin of punch on hand.

I'm not saying that Bach should never be tampered with nor played on instruments he wouldn't have chosen. Gambas - the bass at least - were in common use in Bach's milieu, both for continuo and as obbligato instruments. Unapologetic arrangements of Bach's music for recorders, modern strings, even saxophones have been exciting to hear. The Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet's arrangement of "Die Kunst der Fuge"is a rip-roaring success. Bach: The Art of Fugue So it isn't the idea of the Goldbergs on gambas that's faulty; it's the execution. There's no sprightliness. No sprezzatura. The tempi are sluggish. The delicacies of detail are muddied. Bach's serene optimism is turned to gloom. Virtuosity is no excuse for hubris, dear Fretters! You've attempted the impossible ... and proven that it really isn't possible.
It is different! 16 Dec. 2013
By Warren Schrick - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD Verified Purchase
I gave it four stars, because I am somewhat of a traditionalist. I feel that the Goldberg variations sound best on a keyboard instrument. Perhaps, I would have liked it more if a Harpsichord was included ala the Brandenburg concertos. Well, that is my opinion. However, it is interesting and likable
The Goldberg Variations sounds great on viols. 7 Aug. 2014
By Paul Arents - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD Verified Purchase
Great recording.
The Goldberg Variations is great on viols.
4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
the flesh is seductive, but the longing for the spirit isn't always totally satisfied 3 Jun. 2012
By Discophage - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
Bach's Goldberg Variations were written for a two-keyboard harpsichord, but they've been played and recorded on a wide variety of instruments and instrumental combinations: not just the piano and other keyboard instruments, mind you, like organ or accordion (or even synthesizer), but also guitar(s), harp(s), string trio, string orchestra, full orchestra, wind and string octet, brass or woodwind quintet, saxophone quartet and all the way to cimbaloms, marimba and handbells. The magnificent website devoted exclusively to the Goldberg Variations, three dubya a30a dot com, lists over 70 transcriptions. So this version for viol consort is certainly not one of a kind, and not even a first: the Silke Strauf & Claas Harders duet recorded it on 2 viols for the German label Raumklang in 2008, listed under the German sister company under ASIN B002SF2UKS.

Still, it raises the two questions: why? and: how does it sound?

As to "why", the liner notes by arranger Richard Boothby make it clear, and the reasoning is legitimate: even played at the piano, Bach's keyboard music is a transcription. But not so much digitally, as Boothby contends (because the Goldbergs were conceived for a two-keyboard harpsichord and playing them on one entails some homogenization of timbral color, and requires some digital finessing), but timbrally. So as long as it is accepted (and very few dispute it) that Bach's keyboard music can legitimately be played on another type of keyboard (e.g. timbre) than the one it was conceived for, there is no reason to limit oneself to the piano. Everything goes - as long as it is illuminating (in particular in clarifying the various strands of Bach's contrapuntal textures, which the piano - but the harpsichord even less! - can't always do) and pleasurable, rather than a travesty.

Purists object to Bach's keyboard played on anything else but the harpsichord. I think they're wrong. Arguably, Bach didn't conceive his keyboard music as harpsichord music (in the same way as, say, Liszt or Chopin conceived theirs as piano music), but as music from the mind, for the mind. The instrumental guise doesn't matter that much, it "only" adds the worldly sensuousness of the particular timbres to the otherworldly intellectual pleasures of the contrapuntal, numerical, harmonic and melodic games, comparable to the (fallible and passing) flesh that temporarily harbors the (eternal) spirit.

Still, while versions for string trio (oft-recorded transcription by Dimitri Sitkovetsky) or string ensemble have been offered, you may question the legitimacy of transcribing the Goldbergs for a consort of viols - Fretwork is comprised of six, two per tessitura (trebble, tenor and bass, the baroque equivalent of violin, viola and cello) -, since the ensemble was in great vogue in the 16th and 17th century (with Purcell the last composer of significance to have written for it) rather than in the mid-18th when Bach composed the Goldbergs (1741). But if Fretwork felt like celebrating Bach's masterpiece on their particular instrumental ensemble, independant of any chronological relevance, that's legitimate enough for me. And if the Goldbergs sounded great with a kazoo orchestra, then give me excess of it.

So that's the context and rationale, but now comes the only relevant concern: how does it sound with a consort of viols, is it illuminating and pleasurable?

As for clarifying Bach's contrapuntal textures, the answer is not 100 % positive. Certainly the distinct delineation of the instrumental ensemble's three ranges, trebble, tenor and bass, brings added clarity to Bach's separate but often intertwined voices, and it will come as no surprise that it works best in the two- and three-part variations such as No. 1, No. 7 (two-part) or No. 9, 13, 15, 18, 19, 21, 24 etc. (three-part), because with their assignment of right hand to trebble, left hand to basso and, when relevant, "middle" hand to tenor, all come out very clearly and distinctly. The arrangement also uses occasionally the differentiation between arco and pizzicato, as in the aria or Variation No. 5 (but the price to pay is that Bach's ornamentation is not played when a melodic line is assigned to pizzicati, because you can't play a mordant on a pizz.), and even the stereo separation (too bad it wasn't used in the explosive fireworks of Variation 14). In that respect, the arrangement of Variation No. 5 is very nice, turning what at the piano is a dazzling etude in hand-crossing and overlapping, into a real trio, and adding a great "raindrop" effect by playing the left- then right-hand punctuations as pizzicatti.

Still, as a "collective instrument", the viol consort is essentially, less perhaps than the harpsichord and piano but more than accordion and organ, one of homogeneous timbre. The melodic line of variation No. 3, the canon at the unison, with its same melody repeating and tiling over itself one bar apart, is as tricky for the ear to untangle here, even with the help of the eye and score, as with the piano or harpsichord. Variation No. 6, the canon to the second, is even worse, because here, due to the instruments' limitations of range, the arrangement has one melodic line that should be continuous, pass from the trebble to the basso, giving you the impression that you are hearing more parts than Bach wrote. The same happens in other variations, like 11. Not that they are not effective as such; only, the arrangement lets you hear something other than what Bach wrote. The flesh is seductive, but my longing for the spirit is not entirely satisfied. I'm more ambivalent with variation No 8, where the same kind of tossing around changes Bach's two-part writing into a "dialogue a tre" - but I love the resulting kaleidoscopic effect. Boothby's arrangement turns Variation No. 20, in part, into an irresistibly lovely mandolin serenade.

As for textural clarity the four-part variations are more problematic. In Variation No. 4, even with the score there are middle voices that I don't hear, and I don't know if it is because my ears have not located them or because they've been left out of the transcription, but at any rate the transcription for viol ensemble does little to here to clarify the voicing. I do locate all four in the fughetta Variation No. 10, or in Variation No. 22, but you really need to listen very carefully, with eyes on the score. Add that the arrangement doesn't always differentiate between the different voices, as in the opening aria, where the left-hand is assigned to pizzicati: but the left-hand in the aria bears 3 different voices and you don't really hear with the pizz that they are three different voices, you hear one melodic line.

The second question, whether this is pleasurable, has been partially answered above. How you will react to your familiar Golbergs played not on the harpsichord or piano but on consort of viols is entirely a matter of taste of course and how open-eared and -minded you are. Obviously the previous reviewers, without objecting to the principle itself, have found fault with the interpretation, on details of phrasing or larger matters. Sure, it is true that if this was played at the piano or harpsichord, the interpretation would lack sparkle, especially in the fast and exuberant variations (1, 5, 8, 14, 17, 20...). But precisely, that's the point: these Goldbergs are not played at the keyboard, but by viols. Just as modern neurological research now believes that you can't separate the "mind" from the "body", you can't separate the interpretation, the approach to tempo, articulation and phrasings, from the timbral nature of the instruments on which you play. It may be that I've heard so many different interpretations of the Goldbergs, so many different approaches to tempo, that I've become excessively tolerant to (almost) all, but in the context of the viol consort, I hear very little that I find exceptionable. Variation 5, which I've already commented upon, is a good case in point. Sure, at the tempo, at the piano, it might feel sluggish. But then, nobody at the piano or harpsichord has ever conveyed the "raindrop" effect of Fretwork either, and for the kind of atmosphere that the arrangement seeks to elicit, their tempo is just right. Variation 20? Sure it would be insufferably slow at the piano; but the leisurely tempo adopted by Fretwork cannot be dissociated from the lovely mandolin serenade into which the arrangement has turned it. Variation No. 26 sounds to me entirely convincing as the elegant pavan it is here. And listen to the eerie effect at 0:29 in Variation 28; this is a great variation, with any instrument, but here it is even better, reminiscent of the ghostly sul ponticello in Vivaldi's Winter.

Some of the slow or march-like variations, like No. 15, 21 or 30, which can sound rythmically square and verge on the boring in their keyboard renditions, seem ideally suited to the plangency of the viol consort; Boothby seems almost apologetic for having transposed variations 3, 7 and 25 an octave lower: he shouldn't, there is no difference of essence between transposing down, which only further alters the orignal timbres, and transposing for viols in the first place. Furthermore, hearing No. 25 as a kind of meditation for brooding viola is great - memories of Monsieur de Sainte Colombe and "Tous les Matins du Monde" (All the Mornings of the World (Tous les matins du monde) Two-Disc Edition). I feel that Fretwork could have done more expressively with the slow Variation 13, had they forgotten the keyboard and taken this as "pure" music for viol that Purcell could have written, but in general one of the aspects in their interpretation that I find very commendable is that, unlike some interpretations by string trio that I've heard (including Sitkovetsky's own, Johann Sebastian Bach: Goldberg-Variationen, Version for String Trio), they always retain the sharpness of articulation of the keyboard and never sentimentally slide from one note to another as strings can do, and are often tempted to do.

One thing that one may criticize with Fretwork's interpretation is that they never vary the repeats, never add ornamentation as modern usage has it (in its understanding of ancient usage), and play them exactly like the first time. If played at the piano or harpsichord, without the special seductions, sensual and intellectual, of the ensemble's timbres, this would be a very bland interpretation indeed. Or, if not adding ornamentation, you might have tought that those very repeats would have given arranger Richard Boothby an occasion and incentive to vary the orchestration and assignment of parts to instruments (that would have been great in the corruscating 9th Variation) - but no, he was lazy, or wasn't imaginative enough to think about it. Only in the final aria does he change the orchestration of the first: no more left-hand pizzicati but arco, more observant of Bach's rhythmic values - in fact, I think Fretwork should have played the opposite sequence, first the "complete" orchestration, finishing with the skeleton, like a mere memory of what it started with. But OK, they didn't ask me. Anyway, what would certainly have bothered me with a version at the piano or harpsichord, doesn't here, because the timbral novelty of the viols offers sufficient seductions.

Incidentally, I was drawn to this recording (which I had in my collection but hadn't heard yet) by a review published in the May/June 2012 issue of Fanfare, by critic Lynn René Bayley. That review was of such ineptitude as to be an embarrassment for both the critic and the magazine as a whole. It isn't that Mrs Bayley detered from buying the recording. It is that her review displayed abysmal ignorance, not only of the work's recorded history and interpretations but, worse still, of the composition itself. Rather than adressing the real issues of this recording - why a transcription for viol consort, and how does it sound - Bayley spent two whole pages trying to figure out why the recording of Fretwork had "the extraordinary length" of over 90 minutes, while her old 1955 Gould tossed it off in half that time. Confessing that she didn't own a score - now come on! we are not talking about some obscure work of contemporary music, we are talking about one of the main building blocks of the keyboard litterature, used copies sold here for about 4 bucks, and if even that she couldn't afford, there is the International Music Scores Library Project which offers thousands of out-of-copyright scores on free download, and among those a number of editions of the Goldbergs including the invaluable facsimile of Bach's own copy, bless them - she tried to figure out by ear where the difference of timing came from, based on her old Gould (she didn't even own, or seem to be aware of the 1982 recording) and a version played on the organ by Jean Guillou - that's about what she had in her collection, among the more than 450 different versions listed by a30a. And... dreadful hearing! So, trying to find out "where the extra music came from", she establishes that, in some variations, Fretwork plays "the extra music heard in the Guillou version" or "repeats some music like Guillou", and even that it repeats, like Guillou "what [she] would call the middle section", which "sounds like different music to [her]".

Reading this I don't know whether to laugh or to cry. So her ears have been incapable of telling her what a modicum of knowledge of the Goldbergs or a simple look at the score would have told her: that there is no "extra music" either in Fretwork's recording or in Guillou's, that there is no "middle section" and nothing that "sounds like different music", that Fretwork doesn't repeat "some music" but repeats ALL the music, since the aria and each variation is constructed in two parts, each of which, at the performer's discretion, can be repeated, with possibly (again at the performer's discretion) the melodic line ornamented, true to baroque style. So a version running 91 minutes is no mystery: it is simply one that takes all the repeats. Gould in 1955 took none, Gould in 1982 took some, and had Mrs Bayley had in her collection any of the recordings of Rosalyn Tureck, or any by, say, Barenboim, Schiff, Charles Rosen (who take all the repeats), how many trees would not have been wasted for nothing. Appalling. This is not even sophomoric, and I'm not even sure it would be acceptable in high school. In a later issue of Fanfare, responding to some critics, the editor firmly came in defence of his reviewer, claiming to find her "exceptional". Oh well, that's when I suddenly lost part of my faith in Fanfare (and some will sneer at me and say: "what took you so long?")
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