Friday, 12 February 2016

Bach - Goldberg Variations - Fretwork

Rating: 4/5

Perhaps not the work to transcribe?

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.  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.)

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