What are you going to do
when the music you want to play is performed and recorded
very often? You always could try to be different from anyone
else. But there is the danger of overdoing it; of trying
too hard to be different. And that is what happens here,
I'm afraid. It is not that the players of Quadro Hypothesis
aren't good musicians, although there are some things which
give reason for criticism. More about that later. Let us
first have a look at how they try to be different.
All compositions on this disc are very well-known. It is difficult
if not impossible to shed any new light on them. Not that
this holds back many musicians from recording them for the
umpteenth time. But - and this deserves praise - Quadro Hypothesis
apparently didn't see the need to follow their example. So
they decided to perform these works in a different way, and
arrange them for other instruments than those for which they
were written. There is nothing wrong with that: almost any
composer of the 17th and 18th century at some stage arranged
his own compositions or works by others.
One of the members of the ensemble, Cinzia Zotti, goes at great length
in her programme notes to explain the ensemble's approach.
She starts by quoting Nikolaus Harnoncourt, one of the founding
fathers of the historical performance practice, stating that "in
the Baroque period music was seen as 'speech in notes', and
the soloist built his 'reading' on the rules of rhetoric".
Music could convince and move an audience just as well if
not better than words. "Even if the subject of a discourse
is at the same time indescribable and exciting, that does
not mean that it cannot be expressed. In that way, the musical
score became a magical 'place of the unsaid'", Ms Zotti
writes. This explains the title of this disc: 'la fantasia
della ragione' - "the fantasy of reason". Fantasy
and reason are two of the main features of the baroque style.
It is the fantasy which plays the leading role in these performances,
as the performers try to express the content of the compositions
with different means than were intended by the composer.
The use of contrasting instruments serves the purpose of
underlining the character of this repertoire as a kind of
'discourse'. In the light of what Zotti writes one may assume
they try to convince and move the listener as much as the
composer intended. But that is exactly what this disc fails
There are several reasons for this. One is the choice of instruments.
The disc opens with one of Bach's Trio Sonatas for organ.
The trio texture almost invites performers to play this piece
with two treble instruments and b.c. There are a number of
recordings where the trio sonatas are performed this way
- for instance by the King's Consort on Hyperion. But not
every instrument is equally suited to play the upper parts.
Here the recorder is used alongside the descant viol. It
is in particular the latter instrument which causes trouble.
I find this choice rather unconvincing for historical reasons.
In Germany the instrument was hardly used in Bach's time.
It was very popular in France; in Germany only composers
who had a special interest in the French style used it, in
particular Telemann. But Bach never has used it in any of
his compositions, and music written for violin can't always
be simply played on the descant viol. Here it just doesn't
work very well, also because the balance between the recorder
and the viol is less than ideal. If the recorder plays forte,
in particular in the upper register, the viol is overpowered.
One of the features of Bach's Trio sonatas for organ is the
equal treatment of both upper parts. That equality has largely
disappeared here. One could argue that even the choice of
the recorder in Bach's music isn't very logical. In his instrumental
works Bach very seldom used the recorder, and in his days
the instrument was on its way out.
The next work is a sonata known in two versions: one for harpsichord
and viola da gamba, a second for two transverse flutes and
b.c. The latter is the oldest, but is for its part an arrangement
of a composition for two violins and b.c (which has been
lost). In the version for viola da gamba the second flute
part is transposed down one octave and the harpsichord plays
the other flute part and the basso continuo. What we get
here is a combination of the two versions: the first treble
part is played on the recorder and the harpsichord plays
the basso continuo. The strange thing is that the gamba part
is played here on the lyra viol. This is not a specific instrument
but rather a way of playing the viol, and was practised in
England in the 17th century. To use it in Bach is rather
odd, in particular as there is no musical reason for this.
The following harpsichord fugue is played with recorder,
descant viol, cello and theorbo, but I can't say that it
works all that well.
Mozart came into touch with Johann Sebastian Bach's music through
Baron Gottfried van Swieten, and became immediately hooked.
He arranged some of Bach's fugues for string trio and added
an adagio of his own to every fugue. Here the material has
been divided over the various instruments. The violin part
is played on the recorder, the viola part on the descant
viol and the cello part - surprise - on the cello. Playing
Bach on the lyra viol is anachronistic, so is playing Mozart
on a recorder and a descant viol. It comes as no surprise
that the original Mozart pieces - the adagios - are the least
satisfying. And that has also to do with the playing of the
It is time to say something about the interpretation, if you would
consider these performances as such. As I said, all the musicians
are good, but that doesn't mean I agree with their performance
choices. I am all for good articulation, but that doesn't
include playing staccato which is frequently practised here.
I feel that the music sometimes almost falls apart because
of it. The first adagio by Mozart is the most extreme example.
But I also find the playing sometimes a little stiff, in
particular the playing of the descant viol. I listened to
a recording with original compositions for the descant viol
by Melchior Molter, recorded by Simone Eckert and Hamburger
Ratsmusik (NCA 60141-215). There the instrument sounds much
better, and the playing is more natural and fluent.
The disc ends with a piece which is written by either Bach or his
pupil Johann Gottlieb Goldberg. It was originally scored
for two violins and b.c. The violin parts are played on recorder
and descant viol respectively, but what is most bizarre is
that the first movement has been replaced by the Adagio KV
410 by Mozart, according to Zotti "an amusing variant
which is deliberately dedicated to Mozart's enthusiasm for
Bach". I can't find anything amusing in it, as the result
is anything but convincing because of a lack of coherence.
The best arrangements are those which give the impression they could
have been written by the composer himself. That is not how
the arrangements on this programme sound. If the aim of this
disc was to convince or move the audience then it has failed … at
least for me. The wish to be different turns out here to
be counter-productive. I find this disc pretty annoying,
and I am sure I won't return to it ever.