Fretwork - J.S. Bach - The Art of Fugue

Posted By MiOd On Thursday, July 04, 2013 Under
Fretwork
J.S. Bach - The Art of Fugue
harmonia mundi HMU 907296, 2002
Bach never specified what instrument or instruments he wanted The Art of Fugue played on; nor did he finish it. Fretwork, a group of six superb viol players, leave the work incomplete, stopping in mid-phrase--the effect is persuasive rather than unsatisfying. The sound of the six different-sized viols is just right for listening to the way Bach intermingles the multiple lines through and around one another--we can learn what counterpoint is just by listening to this CD. Some find the work severe and difficult, and played on a single instrument, like a harpsichord, it can be. But Fretwork manage to vary their tones sufficiently to turn the work into entertainment, albeit intellectual entertainment. You may not come away humming, but you'll be fascinated. - Robert Levine

More old music made new appears on Harmonia Mundi HMU 907296 when those wizards of the viols, Fretwork, tackle Bach's mighty Art of Fugue. Musical acrostic puzzle? Last will and testament? The mysteries never end. Nor does the debate about the best means of performance (keyboard or instrumental group?). A viol consort proves a brilliant solution. Viols offer unity of tone (dark brown; great for minor-key melancholy). At the same time lines emerge clearly, evenly weighted: crucial for this monument to Bach's second God, counterpoint, built out of fugal variations on a theme turned upside down, inside out, back to front.
Bach and Fretwork ensure that every track offers some tangible delight: the swung dotted rhythms in Contrapunctus 2, say, or the merrily scampering Canon alla Ottava, or the piquant sonorities of the viol duet in Canon alla Duodecima. This is not music that sits easily on performers’ fingers, but the six members of Fretwork make it appear so. Buy this CD now; cherish it forever. - Geoff Brown

A viol consort offers an excellent medium for conveying clearly the contrapunctal intricacies of Bach's 'The Art of Fugue'. The members of Fretwork offer a refreshing and musically satisfying alternative to the myriad keyboard versions available on disc.
Highlights for me include the overdotted French-overture style of Contrapunctus 6, the predominantly chromatic three-voiced Contrapunctus 8, the wonderful four-part triple fugue of Contrapunctus 11, the clear communication of the subtleties of the canons and, of course, the unfinished Contrapunctus 14 on three new themes, including B-A-C-H, which Fretwork considers the most plausible climax of Bach's developing polyphonic masterpiece. This is responsive and spirited music making, full of expressive detail, yet sounding fresh and spontaneous. The recorded sound is exemplary. - Robin Stowell

Fretwork's decidedly retro approach to Bach's much-arranged and incessantly fiddled-with unfinished 'last' opus is among the simplest and therefore most effective renditions on disc. This renowned ensemble takes on Bach's somewhat ambiguously scored and variously configured collection of fugues (contrapuncti) and canons and performs them on combinations of viols (six in all). Although the evidence points most strongly to this work being intended for keyboard performance - and indeed it nearly always comes off best when realised this way - Fretwork's viol-consort settings preserve important linear and harmonic balances inherent in a single-instrument rendition while imbuing each movement with the viols' naturally warm, complexly-coloured, reedy timbres. While the more densely-textured movements can lose some definition in places - where the resonance of the lower-register instruments dominates - these performances are more coherent and cohesive and
clearly articulated than any of the available versions scored for assortments of wind and strings. Although invariably interesting as exercises and often sonically exciting, these latter 'deconstructive' transcriptions/arrangements have a distracting effect on the listener, calling attention to individual lines rather than to the well-formed unity of the whole.
Fretwork's players deliver nothing less than polished, involving and faithful-to-the-score performances (albeit with their own ordering of movements), ever vigilant to balances and nuances of phrasing. And their trueness to Bach remains constant to the end, where they choose the honoured practice of performing the final 'Fuga a 3 Soggetti' unfinished, leaving the listener in mid-sentence, to abrupt, unsettling silence. The whole effort is supported by full-bodied, vibrant sound with excellent spatial definition among and between instruments. If you want to get to know this intriguing and endlessly fascinating work, this is a perfect place to start; if you're a Bach fan and you don’t have it, get it. - David Vernier

I am an avid collector of performances of Bach's Art of Fugue. Among my favorites are the version by the Emerson Quartet, the Canadian Brass, and the version for string orchestra by Bernard Labadie and the Violons du Roy. But this recording by Fretwork, which features a performance of the Art of Fugue for viol consort is probably my favorite; it's certainly the one that I listen to the most. In my opinion, the haunting, ethereal, and rather 'open' sound of the viol is the perfect medium to convey the true character of Bach's final masterpiece.
Yes, I am aware that performing the Art of Fugue on viols is not historically accurate, but unless one absolutely has to have a period instrument performance, what does it matter? Actually, I find the 'inauthenticity' of the performance rather unique in that most 'historicaly inaccurate' baroque performances use instruments that came into use after the baroque period (e.g, piano). But the viol's popularity reached its height during the century before Bach and had already gone out of fashion by the time of Bach's birth, the last work of real significance written specifically for viols being Henry Purcell's brilliant series of Fantasias from 1680 (I would recommend Jordi Savall/Hesperion XX's recording of these pieces). So, this recording of Bach's Art of Fugue for viol consort achieves a rather different kind of musical anachronism than what most are accustomed to: it uses instruments from the period before the piece being performed was written. I find
this very intriguing and would be interested in hearing how this would work with other, perhaps later music. I could imagine that Schubert's fourteenth string quartet, the 'Death and the Maiden' Quartet, would sound very interesting performed on viol consort!
In any event, the performance on this CD strikes me as basically flawless and thus fit for listening on headphones, which make the experience even more haunting and intimate.

Fretwork is a consort of viols based in England, United Kingdom. Formed in 1986, the group consists of six players and is considered to be one of the finest groups performing music for viol consort. Its repertoire consists primarily of music of the Renaissance period, in particular that of Elizabethan England, and the Baroque period, including arrangements of the music of J.S. Bach.
The group has toured all over the world, with tours of Japan & USA, and three visits to Russia, the first when it was still the Soviet Union in 1989. They initiated a series of courses for voices and viols on the Greek island of Evvia with Michael Chance, and have also been invited twice to teach on the annual Conclave of the Viola da Gamba Society of America.
In addition to its performances of early music, Fretwork has been active in commissioning new works for viol consort. Its 1997 recording Sit Fast includes new works by such composers as Gavin Bryars, Tan Dun, and Elvis Costello. It has also commissioned music from Sir John Tavener, Alexander Goehr, George Benjamin, Duncan Druce, Fabrice Fitch, Gavin Bryars, Barry Guy, Poul Ruders, Simon Bainbridge, Ivan Moody, John Woolrich, Thea Musgrave, Peter Sculthorpe, Sally Beamish, Andrew Keeling and Orlando Gough.
Fretwork has recorded a series of discs for Virgin Classics and currently records for Harmonia Mundi USA. Recent discs include 'Alio Modo' (arrangements of keyboard music by Bach), Chansons by Alexander Agricola and Fabrice Fitch and a disc of consort songs with Emma Kirkby.
Fretwork was recently featured on the soundtracks of two Jim Jarmusch movies, Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) and Broken Flowers (2005). Other filmtracks include The Da Vinci Code, Kingdom of Heaven, The Crucible, La Fille d'Artagnant and many others. It has also recorded for Robbie Williams (Supreme) and Loreena McKennitt (for the album An Ancient Muse).

Johann Sebastian Bach - Art of the Fugue, BWV 1080
01. Contrapunctus 1 3:09
02. Contrapunctus 3 2:48
03. Contrapunctus 2 2:39
04. Contrapunctus 4 3:42
05. Canon alla Ottava 4:30
06. Contrapunctus 5 3:31
07. Contrapunctus 6 3:47
08. Contrapunctus 7 3:27
09. Canon alla Duodecima in Contrapunto alla Quinta 4:51
10. Contrapunctus 9 2:25
11. Contrapunctus 10 4:01
12. Canon alla decima [in] Contrapunto alla Terza 4:38
13. Contrapunctus 8 5:30
14. Contrapunctus 11 5:53
15. Contrapunctus 12 - rectus 1:57
16. Contrapunctus 12 - inversus 2:03
17. Contrapunctus [13] - rectus 2:23
18. Contrapunctus [13] - inversus 2:22
19. Canon per Augmentationem in Contrario Motu 3:58
20. Fuga a 3 Soggeti 8:28

Richard Boothby
Richard Campbell
Wendy Gillespie
Julia Hodgson
William Hunt
Susanna Pell

320 kbps including full booklet scans

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