Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Bach On Ye Olde Hurdy-Gurdy

Bach: Alio Modo
Harmonia Mundi 907395

  1. Pièce d'Orgue in G major BWV 572
  2. Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein BWV 641
  3. Prelude & Fugue XVI in G minor BWV 885
  4. Passacaglia in C minor BWV 582
  5. Kyrie, Gott Vater in Ewigkeit
  6. Christe, aller Welt Trost
  7. Kyrie, Gott heiliger Geist BWV 671
  8. Dies sind die heiligen zehen Gebot BWV 678
  9. Dies sind die heiligen BWV 679
  10. Prelude & Fugue XXII in A minor BWV 867
  11. Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir BWV 686
  12. Fugue in E-flat major, "St Anne" BWV 522.2
  13. Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit BWV 668
  14. Prelude & Fugue XI in F major BWV 880
  15. Wir gläuben all an einen Gott BWV 680
  16. Fugue IV in D minor BWV 849
  17. Ricercar BWV 1079
  18. Canon triplex BWV 1076


OK, not really a Hurdy-Gurdy. (But that's what I imagine a critic might say, like Thomas Beecham's quip about the harpsichord sounding like "two skeletons copulating on a tin roof.")

This 2005 CD is one of my very favorites from the last five years. Take a veteran and decorated period instrument ensemble, and match them up with select pieces from Bach's vast catalog of fabulous organ compositions, and the results are pure magic.

Fretwork are a London-based viol ensemble, a group of six regular members who specialize in baroque and pre-baroque repertoire. They've made numerous ensemble recordings and backed up soloists on several different music labels. I first encountered them with a recording a few years back of Bach's Art of Fugue and another of music of John Dowland. But this disc hits a home run for me repertoire-wise, with several pieces that are pointed favorites of mine: the c minor Passacaglia, the G Major Piece d'Orgue, and the organ chorale Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit (supposedly written on Bach's deathbed and devastating in its restrained, heartbreaking beauty).

These pieces would sound good on, say, a modern string sextet (hell, Bach sounds great on anything), but the viols are an especially auspicious setting. The viola da gamba family was very familiar to Bach, so it's not an inappropriate sound for baroque music. And the sound seems tailor-made for ensemble work, being rather nasal and quieter than its violin-family counterpart and with a particularly good ensemble blend. Standard period practice seems to dictate that vibrato is used sparingly, if at all; so the resulting sound is clear and very pure, and the emotional content of the music is restrained and cerebral. It's a similar sound to the pipe organ, at least to certain individual stops, but on a more intimate and individually-expressive scale. Even though an organist can allot a piece's parts among a pedal and a couple of keyboards, assigning each part to its own individual string instrument brings even greater clarity to the part-writing, laying Bach's ingenious counterpoint completely before one. The only thing better for comprehending Bach's architectural mind is the score itself.

While I've always believed there is a deep emotional content to Bach's music--and indeed some scores are manifestly emotional--it often seems to me that this emotional content is buried beneath an ecrypting technical layer, that some work is involved for the listener to get to it. This is why one often hears from the unfamiliar or uninitiated that Bach's music is "cold" or "mechanical;" they haven't done the work to get to the juicy marrow beneath. This recording brings us as close as possible to Bach's conception, and to that marrow. Whereas the organ often has a lot of church-related baggage to overcome with the non-organ-loving public, this disc presents some sublime music in a way that doesn't require this dissociative step from the listeners. The person who doesn't respond to this disc, I think, is just not going to like this repertoire, period.

I do have one little niggle: at times in these pieces, the ensemble seems to swell and diminish with no discernible (to me) rationale, almost as though some producer told them they needed to avoid monotony. It's a small thing, but if I can't grasp what contribution it's making to a musical idea, then the exercise is more distracting than anything. But it's but a tiny blotch (if indeed it is that) on an otherwise magical release.

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