BACH: Goldberg Variations (arr. Richard Boothby) – Fretwork – Harmonia mundi (2 CDs)

BACH: Goldberg Variations (arr. Richard Boothby) – Fretwork – Harmonia mundi 907560 (2 CDs), 90:15 ***1/2:
The first thing that struck me about this release is its intrinsic anachronism; Despite the fact that Bach might have enjoyed the sound of a viol, the instrument was well on its way out the door by the time this piece was written, so hearing these particular sonorities from these six instruments is a little strange, like playing the Brandenburg’s on sackbuts and cornets. Okay, maybe that is a bit of an exaggeration, but the sentiment remains. Mr. Boothby’s attitude is simply that for those who don’t like this arrangement the others are still out there in spades, and that is true. But I would argue that any new recording of the Goldberg’s should bring something new to the table, and the booklet notes erudite author, John Butt, really stretches the argument when he says that “the notion of transcribing the variations for other types of instruments is of a piece with Bach’s own attitude towards his music, since different combinations and timbres bring out different aspects of the music, arrangement actually continuing the process of ‘variation’.”
Really? If that is the case, then no sets of variations ever written will ever be complete!
I am also not buying the rather astounding comment at the beginning of the notes, this time by arranger Boothby, that Glenn Gould’s iconic recordings are in fact an arrangement of the Goldberg Variations due to the fact that they were written for a two-manual harpsichord, and the varying colors available on both keyboards would be different on the piano. But who is to say that any two harpsichordists would play them the same way? Now we move not into arranging as such but to interpretation, the color of any keyboard performance being as aspect of this, and not the craft of arranging. In fact, out of all Bach’s works, this is one where we really don’t have to worry about scoring and instrumentation or rewrites—it is what it is.
So does this mean that this piece should be left alone? Only if you believe Beethoven’s string quartets should have been left alone by Mahler for example. Anything can be arranged for any reason, and I am sure Bach will remain a particularly enticing target. Does Fretwork bring anything new? Aside from the pre-Bach timbre that comes across so strongly, I can’t say that the performance in general does this, certainly not “clarifying the contrapuntal nature of all the canons”—how often have we read this sort of thing about Bach arrangements?—or adds anything new to what generations of keyboards players have already found in this music. But as pure playing, performance standards are very high, as they always are with Fretwork, and because it is the Goldberg Variations the music itself remains the thing, and the thing is not easily upset by adventures into speculative rescoring. There really is no need to come up with lengthy justifications of why this arrangement needed to be done; if I had simply heard “Fretwork is a great ensemble and we are just dying to have a crack at the Goldberg Variations” it would have been enough. As is, great playing in wonderfully comfortable sound, not a first choice by any means, but superbly professional for anyone wanting to hear the music in a different guise. There you have it.
— Steven Ritter

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