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Music Review: Fretwork – Bach: Goldberg Variations

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Fretwork is an amazing six-piece viol consort based in England. They have been together since 1986, and offer a fascinating, and highly original approach to music of the Renaissance period. Although they are most famous for their interpretations of English Elizabethan and Jacobean compositions, they have also commissioned contemporary pieces as well.Their latest release is a two-disc set of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, released by the Harmonia Mundi label.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations was first published in 1741. He produced a staggering number of compositions over the course of his life, well over 1,000 – in a bewildering assortment of arrangements. With such a huge body of material, it is not surprising that some of the pieces are more familiar to the general public than others.

Such was the case with the Goldberg Variations, at least until Glenn Gould recorded it in 1955. A couple of contributing factors to its relative obscurity may be the fact that it was published fairly late in Bach’s life, and might have been overshadowed by earlier compositions. Another may be the “variations” motif itself. As indicated, the very structure of a variation is repetitive. Gould’s bold move was to remove the “repeats.” His classic, best-selling Goldberg Variations had a total time of 38:34, which stretched the limits of the LP format considerably. When he revisited the composition in 1981, his recording ran for 51:18.

In contrast, Fretwork’s Goldberg Variations recording clocks in at an astonishing 90:15. In many ways, their interpretation is as ground-breaking as Gould’s was. First of all, recording the Variations with viols is pretty radical, although theirs is not actually the first time the Variations have been arranged for the instrument. Bach’s composition was written for a harpsichord with two keyboards, and as arranger Richard Boothby notes, arranging it for six viols was a bit of a challenge. The results speak for themselves however, for Fretwork’s performance is inspired.

The viol itself is relatively obscure, largely overshadowed by other bowed, stringed instruments such as the violin and cello. Like the cello, the viol is played upright. However, the viol has six strings, versus the cello’s four. There are a number of other differences of course, but this is not the place for an in-depth analysis of the instrument. Suffice to say, it produces a wonderful sound, and with six viols playing in harmony, there is a nearly celestial effect at times.

The upshot to all of this is that Fretwork have delivered a magnificent edition of the Fretwork have delivered a magnificent edition of the Goldberg Variations. Harmonia Mundi are to be applauded as well for releasing such an original, and satisfying rendering of this remarkable piece of music.

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