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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
French Suite in G major, BWV 816 [16:51]
Fantasia and Fuge in D minor, BWV 905 [5:28]
Kommst du nun, Jesu, vom Himmel herunter, BWV 650 [4:10]
Ach Gott und Herr, BWV 692 [2:02]
Italian Concerto, BWV 971 [13:30]
Trio super: Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland, BWV 660 [3:41]
Wo soll ich fliehen hin, BWV 646 [2:26]
Sonata in D major, BWV 1028 [15:04]
Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten, BWV 691 [2:25]
Cellini Consort
rec. 2017, SRF Radiostudio, Zurich, Switzerland.
RAMEE RAM1911 [65:44]

With the exception of the Sonata BWV 1028, this programme is of Bach’s solo keyboard works, reworked for a chamber ensemble of three viols. These instruments range from treble to bass viol, and this and the addition of five and six-string Pardessus de Viole instruments makes for a homogenous sound that also has plenty of depth and a wide spectrum of sonorities.

The booklet notes for this release point out that ‘musicians and composers long regarded rearranging and reworking pieces - their own or other people’s - as an essential and ordinary aspect of their craft.’ Bach is of course well-known for his re-purposing of his own music and arranging. Some of these are the only surviving evidence of a piece, the original instrumentation of which having to remain the subject of speculation. This text also points out that history and historically informed performance ‘was virtually silent on the practice,’ but awareness of this as a widespread phenomenon means that it is enjoying something of a renaissance, and the time is ripe for producing ‘fresh and original insight on well-known works’ in this way.

The sound of the viol consort is by no means an unfamiliar one, and this recording provides ample evidence of its suitability for playing Bach’s music. Bach’s lyrical lines and counterpoint come through with ease and clarity, and there is no shortage of rhythmic animation here as well. The Cellini Consort plays respectfully, but with a complete absence of stodgy over-reverence, breathing new life into familiar pieces within the capabilities of their instruments, at the same time creating a deliciously expressive world which indeed allows as a new view on the works presented here.

The arrangements here are as faithful as possible to the originals, and the relatively low sound of three bass viols, combined with the at times quite busy music of the French Suite BWV 816 - in the Courante for instance - makes this if anything one of the more ‘difficult’ pieces in the programme. The familiarity of the music is an aid to easing oneself into this new sound-world, and if the beauty of sustained sound in the Sarabande doesn’t win you over then I’ll eat my ruffle. You might wonder at the effectiveness of some of the dance movements, and the final Gigue is indeed a little slower than you would normally expect to hear. The rhythmic impulse is firm however, and without sounding stressed or rushed this is still music to which you can imagine working up some flushed cheeks on the dance floor.

The Fantasia and Fugue BWV 905 is a gem, and gleams with noble polish in this performance; the Fantasia elegantly noble and the Fugue intricate but with a lovely flow. Instrumental pieces are interspersed with works based on chorale melodies and these all work exquisitely on viols, the character of each line being given individual identity as well as fitting into the accompanying embellishments like cogs in a machine of the utmost refinement. The Sonata in D major BWV 1028 uses tenor and bass viols for the harpsichord part with another ‘solo’ bass viol for the upper line, the result in fact revealing the equality of all of the parts and almost at times turning the work into a new Brandenburg Concerto.

Beautifully balanced and with a nice stereo spread in a rich acoustic, this recording is a treat both for the ears and the mind. There is a sweet melancholy to the sound of a viol consort, so this may suit more specific moods than some. We all seek moments of reflectiveness from time to time however, and in any case this is by no means a downbeat programme. You can never have too much Bach, and having these pieces in this form can only enhance your appreciation of his brilliance as a composer.

Dominy Clements

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