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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Well-Tempered Consort II
Selections from The Well-Tempered Clavier Books 1 and 2
rec. Magdalen College, Oxford, 4-7 August 2020
Reviewed as high-definition download with pdf booklet from
LINN CKD657 [70:05]

This is the second volume of Bach arranged for viol consort by Phantasm. This time the music is selected exclusively from the Well-Tempered Clavier where the first CD mixed in music from the Musical Offering and other sources. Having enjoyed the first volume immensely, I delved into this new collection with great enthusiasm. Happily, all the many qualities that made Volume 1 such an outstanding release are here in abundance too.

Whereas the first volume felt more about excitedly delving into the potential for this kind of arrangement of Bach’s music, this time it seems more about digging deeper into the individual character of each prelude or fugue. There is not the slightest risk of this feeling like an endless procession of fugues. If one of the risks of extended listening to the 48 can be ‘fugue fatigue’, then there is little chance of that.

I have a soft spot for recordings that sound like the performers were enjoying themselves and that sense beams from this recording. The format of the viol consort makes for conversational music making and that quality makes Bach’s counterpoint come alive in a special way. All of the music on this recording exemplifies this, but try the B-flat fugue from Book Two for a strikingly good example. I had always thought of this fugue in exclusively keyboard terms but Phantasm take it somewhere else. It is much like listening in on a group of friends enjoying dinner together round a table.

In his notes, Dreyfus also speaks of liberating all manner of associations with the wider Bach canon that might not be so obvious when the 48 is played at the keyboard. I think this point is audible throughout. I found my head full of Brandenburg concertos, cantatas, passions, the cello suites and the violin sonatas and partitas. These are not direct allusions, but Phantasm time again point up family relationships.

It helps that that the viol possesses a unique resemblance to the human voice. Bach’s melodies really sing in way that even the greatest keyboard master cannot hope to match. The C-sharp minor fugue from Book One is a good example. The gently lamenting voices gradually pile up as if reaching for the light. In my imagination, I was at the deposition from the cross and the voices were the sorrowful ones of the women receiving the body for burial.

Despite a change of recording venue, Linn’s production team excel themselves once more.

I concluded my review of Volume 1 of the Well-Tempered Consort by saying that if I had heard it in 2020, it would have been one of my albums of the year. I can’t yet say what 2021 has in store but if I hear a better disc then it will have been a vintage year.

David McDade

Previous review: Peter Bright (Recording of the Month)

The Well Tempered Clavier Book 2:
Prelude No 16 in G minor BWV 885 [1:50]
Fugue No 16 in G minor BWV 885 [2:57]
Fugue No 1 in C major BWV 870 [1:55]
Fugue No 2 in C minor BWV 871 [2:00]
Prelude No 4 in C-sharp minor BWV 873 [3:58]
Fugue No 4 in C-sharp minor BWV 873 [2:31]
Well Tempered Clavier Book 1:
Prelude No 12 in F minor BWV 857 [2:15]
Fugue No 12 in F minor BWV 857 [4:32]
Well Tempered Clavier Book 2:
Fugue No 13 in F-sharp major BWV 882 [2:31]
Well Tempered Clavier Book 1:
Fugue No 11 in F major BWV 856 [1:38]
Well Tempered Clavier Book 2:
Fugue No 21 in B-flat major BWV 890 [2:52]
Fugue No 7 in E-flat major BWV 876 [1:35]
Well Tempered Clavier Book 1:
Fugue No 17 in A-flat major BWV 862 [2:09]
Fugue No 4 in C-sharp minor BWV 849 [4:05]
Well Tempered Clavier Book 2:
Fugue No 14 in F-sharp minor BWV 883 [3:58]
Well Tempered Clavier Book 1:
Fugue No 23 in B major BWV 868 [2:08]
Well Tempered Clavier Book 2:
Prelude No 9 in E major BWV 878 [6:15]
Fugue No 9 in E major BWV 878 [3:27]
Prelude No 19 in A major BWV 878 [1:30]
Well Tempered Clavier Book 1:
Fugue No 8 in D-sharp minor BWV 853 [5:04]
Well Tempered Clavier Book 2:
Fugue No 6 in D minor BWV 875 [2:08]
Prelude No 5 in D major BWV 874 [4:16]
Fugue No 6 in D major BWV 874 [1:47]

Laurence Dreyfus (treble viol and director)
Emilia Benjamin (treble viol)
Jonathan Manson (tenor viol)
Heidi Gröger (bass viol)
Markku Luolajan-Mikkola (bass viol)

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