Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) Goldberg Variations BWV 988 (arr. Henrik Rabien)
Bassoon Consort Frankfurt (Henrik Rabien, Lena Nagai, Felix Eberle, Charlotte Sutthoff, Thomas Gkesios, Leon Kranich, Merve Selcuk, Kathrin Mayer (bassoons), Stephan Krings (contrabassoon))
rec. 7-9 April 2015, Konzerthaus der Abtei Marienmünster, Frankfurt, Germany MUSIKPRODUKTION DABRINGHAUS UND GRIMM 90319146 SACD [76:51]
This recording is a truly extraordinary achievement. Goldberg Variations played by eight bassoons and a contra – are you serious? Whatever next, Beethoven 9 on massed kazoos perhaps? Well don’t be misled by such blinkered reactions; the playing on this disc is of the very highest quality, as is the musicianship on display. True, it will not appeal to everyone, and I own up to my personal bias as an erstwhile bassoonist. Many will however find it, as I did, hugely enjoyable, and a true musical voyage of discovery.
Great praise must go to Henrik Rabien, on two counts. First of all as the moving force behind this extraordinary ensemble, the Bassoon Consort of Frankfurt. Secondly for having the vision to see that the Goldberg Variations could be arranged for such a group, as well as the skill to carry it out so successfully.
It took me a few tracks to be convinced; the great theme itself sounded just a little uncomfortable in its new setting, possibly because the melody, pitched in the key of G, doesn’t easily fit in the range of the bassoon, necessitating some changes of register that upset its flow and unity. That said, as the wonderful variations unfolded, I was completely won over; the characterisation of each number is so sharp and convincing, and there is a sense of utter enjoyment and absorption in the music. Bach has played into the hands of such an arrangement by varying the texture by anything from two to five parts. This means, importantly, that all members of the ensemble get a rest from time to time, without which they might not be able to get through.
The playing of first bassoon Rabien is exceptional; he is so flexible and fluent in the very high register of the instrument, where the finger-work is cruelly difficult. Equally, right down at the other end, we have the unsurpassable contra playing of Stephan Krings, whose mastery of this sometimes unwieldy instrument is on a level I personally haven’t encountered before. He is able, when required to produce a bass of rhythmic impact one would normally expect from a pizzicato string bass. Numbers like the Canon at the octave of Variation 20 demonstrate this well, but it is evident throughout the whole work.
All the playing is of the highest standard; the group is made up of teachers and students, current and former, of Frankfurt College of Music and Arts. Hence there is a unity of purpose about the whole enterprise, as well as a rare musical empathy between the players. A small but not insignificant point: the mechanism of the bassoon is potentially very noisy, because of the long rods required to open and close the various holes. Recordings can thus be, if not ruined, certainly compromised by the clatter this can make. It seems to me that these players have taken great care to ‘silence’ their key-work, which enhances the recording immeasurably.
The unique wonders of this work, one of the supreme achievements of Western civilisation, can be heard and appreciated anew in this guise: the scurrying staccato of Variation 5; the swaying dance of Variation 7 for just the two bassoons; the Vivaldi-like rhythmic drive of Variations 8 and 20, the latter possibly my favourite of the lot … and so on, throughout.
This is far from being the first ensemble version of the Goldbergs: arrangements for string trio, solo harp (by Katrin Finch), two pianos, guitar duet, and many more exist but this one is eminently worth hearing, and, for me at any rate, hugely rewarding. As Henrik Rabien concludes, in his thoughtful notes, this version of the great variations provides “…the opportunity to experience their manifold tone colours and registers in their full multiplicity”.