fri 25/09/2020

Goldberg Variations, Fretwork, St George's Bristol | reviews, news & interviews

Goldberg Variations, Fretwork, St George's Bristol

Goldberg Variations, Fretwork, St George's Bristol

Bach on viols brings out the polyphony and promotes insomnia

There are few more beautiful sounds on this planet than a consort of viols well played. Like a quiet conversation overheard from across the room, it combines intimacy and secrecy, together with a kind of conspiratorial subtlety of feeling – intellect and passion fused but disguised. And the sound has a delicacy and refinement hardly matched in any music I know.

All this is partly explained by the fact that in their heyday viol consorts played music that was one step away from the voice; they were the pioneers of instrumental chamber music. They let the catgut out of the bag; and once instrument makers got the message, the gentle viols were doomed. By Bach’s day – the first half of the 18th century – the violin family was the thing and the viol consort was a dead duck. So in turning the Goldberg Variations, one of Bach’s longest and greatest scores (a keyboard work at that), into a consort piece for six viols, Fretwork are chancing their arms, in more ways than 12.

Partly because of their construction, partly because of the way they’re played (vertically on the knee), viols are soft-spoken, even-tempered, rather feminine instruments. They can’t match the brilliance and virile athleticism of the violin, and they certainly can’t compete with the Baroque harpsichord for variety of colour. They blend into one another, so that often you can’t immediately tell, without looking, who is playing – treble, tenor or bass. In transcribing the Goldbergs, Dmitri Sitkovetsky often has to break up lines and figurations that range across the whole keyboard; but there is never any break in the sonority. The sound is a smooth tapestry without joins: a seamless cloak.

Sitkovetsky’s arrangement is on the whole literal: he simply allocates Bach’s melodic lines more or less as they stand. He might change a register, for variety or compactness; in the seventh variation, a courtly siciliano, he writes the tune down an octave so that the two bass viols can duet – this is the sort of effect a harpsichordist might choose by pulling out an eight-foot stop. He scores the Aria (the theme) in two different ways: thinly at the start, with the melodic ornaments prominent, then at the end for all six instruments, with more sense of texture. Here and there he invents a dialogue by alternating instruments on the one melody. He might have to rationalise inner parts, where the keyboard player can touch in a chord with an available finger, but in a consort a separate instrument has to be allocated.

The problem here is co-ordination. Ensemble is much easier when everyone is playing all the time; when they just have to come in at the right time on the odd figure, sometimes at high speed in an elaborate texture, it can be like walking a tightrope on stilts. In this respect, the virtuoso harpsichordist has it pretty easy. But to their immense credit, Fretwork hardly ever let their audience know how hard this is. Apart from a couple of out-of-character false starts, and an understandably tired-sounding penultimate variation (rapid oscillating chords, scurrying triplet dialogue), they never sounded anything but completely sure of themselves. And, as in all good chamber-music playing, they seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves and each other.

The Goldberg Variations can easily be dull if not played with brilliance and variety. Scholars now cast doubt on the famous story of the insomniac Count Keyserlingk commissioning a work from Bach for the young Johann Goldberg to play to him in the small hours. But it’s an irresistible picture: falling asleep to a set of interminable variations not that well played (Goldberg, it seems, was no virtuoso). Fretwork, though, are virtuosos and never put one to sleep: instead they encourage one to listen inside the music, to try to detect how the polyphony works, how the ornamented melodies speak, how the threads of the tapestry weave into the complete picture. It’s an esoteric delight, but it would surely have kept the Count awake.

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When this article's link is pasted on Facebook, the blurb that results says: "Bach on viols brings out the polyphony and promotes insomnia, says Stephen Walsh" But the reviewer actually concludes: "Fretwork, though, are virtuosos and never put one to sleep..." Did your editor actually read the review?

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