Fretwork: Goldberg Variations

Fretwork has recorded several discs of Bach transcriptions, the Goldbergs being by far the most complicated and ambitious. It’s an arrangement for 6 viols: two trebles, two tenors and two basses. I’m playing one of the tenor parts on this recording, which was my first disc with Fretwork. Getting this thumping great mound of keyboard virtuosity to fit on viols is at times a bit of an ordeal, but in its finer moments the arrangement manages to illuminate the intricacy of Bach’s counterpoint quite beautifully. The canon variations are best at this. I quite like Variation 21 (disc 2 track 6).

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Also, here’s a nice review in The Gramophone from David Vickers (Jan 2012):

This is Fretwork’s first recording to be released since the tragic passing of founder-member Richard Campbell (who was not involved in this project). This arrangement of the Goldberg Variations for viols in up to six parts is the brainchild of another founder member, Richard Boothby, who provides a short booklet-note that is erudite, friendly and humble (there is also an illuminating commentary on the music written by John Butt). Manifold imaginative reinventions of Bach’s music modernise scorings and textures but Boothby’s transcriptions are an unusual yet fascinating advocacy for a consort of viols that Bach would have considered archaic.

A sequel of sorts to Fretwork’s album ‘Alio modo’ (10/05) that rearranged a miscellaneous selection of Bach’s keyboard works, there is nothing disloyal about these intoxicating performances. There are plenty of variations in which the sonority of the viols does not sound far removed from the much older polyphonic consort repertoire in which Fretwork made its name, although it is also striking how many valuable musical details are yielded by the consort’s conversational playing; the supreme quality of musical understanding and listening between the six players is a joy to hear. As the spirit of the music dictates, Fretwork produces playing of astonishing imagination (e.g. use of lively pizzicato for arpeggiated passages in Var. 20), dexterity (beautifully sustained trills during Var. 28) or intense melancholy (the adagio of Var. 25). With such a feast on offer, harpsichords never crossed my heretical mind.