Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Well-Tempered Consort - I
rec. 2019, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem, Germany
LINN RECORDS CKD618 [66:55]
This is the first volume in a project in which distinguished viol consort Phantasm attempts “to uncover the riches concealed behind the more neutral resources of the harpsichord and organ so as to liberate characters lurking in the shadows of Bach’s polyphonic edifices.” The pieces selected here come mostly from the Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1, Musical Offering and Clavier-Übung III, as the booklet notes mentioning the “uncanny links with venerable English traditions while also leaping into a chromatic twelve-tone world drenched in what borders on raw modernism.” There is indeed an interesting lightbulb moment, or there was for me, with Chorale Prelude BWV653b 'An Wasserflüssen Babylon', which here suddenly sounds very English indeed. The viol consort is an ensemble more often associated with the likes of Dowland or Lawes, but when well-played, Bach sounds good on just about anything, and you can certainly sit back and relax into some hauntingly beautiful sounds and superb musicianship with this recording.
The viol is a fretted instrument, and though the Well-Tempered title suggests Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues in every key, there has been some adaptation of keys here to accommodate or indeed flatter the natural resonance of this consort. There is a table in the booklet revealing which pieces have been altered in this way and which have not, and though you might expect some interesting intonation in the more exotic keys the playing is so expert and quietly virtuoso that there are no real shocks in this regard.
Hunt around for other viol consort ensembles who play Bach and you will soon encounter Fretwork and their recordings for Harmonia Mundi. Fretwork has recorded The Art of Fugue and the Goldberg Variations as well as other keyboard works on their Alio modo album which sees some overlap with Phantasm’s programme. I would be hard pressed to criticise either ensemble but, if anything, Phantasm arguably has a touch more depth in their sound and variety of colour.
As you would expect, the playing here is expressive while not being unidiomatic. Phrasing and the balancing of voices is a delight throughout, and this is reflected in a recording that allows the ear to follow any of Bach’s contrapuntal voices with ease. There is an admission that the viol consort “can’t compete with contrasting organ stops”, and this would be the only negative side to a programme such as this, where the general lack of variety in timbre can cause the listener to switch off a bit from time to time. This is however in the nature of the ensemble, and if you love the viol sound then you will relish this recording and, like me, be looking forward to future volumes. There is a nice balance between slower pieces and more sprightly tracks such as the all too brief Fugue No. 9 BWV 854, but where the sound lacks in absolute contrast the delicious intimacy and subtle vibrato in something like the Chorale Prelude BWV686 'Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir' will make you sit up and pay attention for reasons all of its own. This is a recording for late candle-lit nights, your favourite slippers and a glass of something civilised, and you can’t ask for much more than that.
Laurence Dreyfus (treble viol and director)
Jonathan Manson, Emilia Benjamin (tenor viol)
Heidi Gröger (bass viol and violone)
Markku Luolajan-Mikkola (bass viol)
with Liam Byrn (bass viol)
Musical Offering, BWV1079: Ricercar a 3 [5:57]
Three-part Invention (Sinfonia) No. 9 in F minor, BWV795 [2:44]
Chorale Prelude BWV653b 'An Wasserflüssen Babylon' [3:11]
Prelude & Fugue Book 1 No. 19 in A major, BWV864 [3:35]
Fugue (from Prelude & Fugue in C, BWV547) [3:13]
Fugue (from Prelude & Fugue Book 2 No. 17 in B-flat major, BWV886) [2:21]
Prelude & Fugue Book 1 No. 22 in B flat minor, BWV867 [4:41]
Fugue (from Prelude & Fugue Book 1 No. 14 in F sharp minor, BWV859) [3:00]
Prelude & Fugue Book 1 No. 24, BWV869 [8:12]
Fugue No. 9 in E major, BWV854 [1:17]
Chorale Prelude BWV686 'Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir' [4:56]
Prelude & Fugue Book 2 No. 22 B flat Minor, BWV891 [5:24]
Chorale Prelude BWV737 'Vater unser im Himmelreich' [2:07]
Fugue in E flat major, BWV552/2 'St Anne' [5:33]
Chorale Prelude BWV671 'Kyrie, Gott heiliger Geist' [3:52]
Musical Offering, BWV1079: Ricercar a 6 [6:46]