BACH: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 – Bassoon Consort Frankfurt – MDG

BACH: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 – Bassoon Consort Frankfurt – Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm multichannel SACD MDG 903 1914-6, 76:51 (10-30-15) (also 2+2+2) [Distr. by eOne] *****: 

A most unusual instrumental arrangement of Bach’s Goldbergs.

Since it was first written, Bach’s music has been rewritten. First it was by Bach himself in numerable re-uses, elaborations and updatings. Then followed an endless string of musicians and composers fascinated by how brilliantly it was constructed to hold the listener’s attention and the sheer amount of it he wrote. So we have wound up with such things as Art of Fugue on saxophones and the current craze, the Goldberg Variations for string trio or even string orchestra. And many, many others besides. All of it fanciful, of course, and often highly entertaining.

For something that’s all of that, but also actually more authentic than anything that could be imagined, comes a definitive updating by eight bassoonists and one contrabassoon of the Goldberg Variations from Detmold’s audiophile label, Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm (MDG) and in hi-res surround yet. The bassoonists en masse call themselves Bassoon Consort Frankfurt – their leader and founder is Henrik Rabien, who made the arrangement and plays first bassoon, and who kept the music’s original key and just transposed the instruments down an octave.

Four saxophones could probably make the Goldbergs sound pretty swell too, but bassoonists in general, and certainly Rabien’s crew prove again the old adage that you don’t play the bassoon and not love Baroque bassoon music; the Baroque, you see, was the never-to-be-equalled heyday of the instrument, and it has not enjoyed such splendid notoriety or much celebrity since, aside from Peter and the Wolf.

Like the other famous double-reed players, the oboists, bassoonists know everything about Baroque music. How to sound it, voice it, phrase it, and go to its heart with unerring accuracy. Their return to the final statement of the “Aria,” for example, is an unforgettably magic moment out of Shakespeare. And since bassoonists lag far behind the oboe, and even the English horn, in being able to lead solo lives in the 21st century, Baroque is where they tend to specialize.

The players, made up of teachers, students and former members of Rabien’s class at the Frankfurt College of Music and Arts, all have lovely, woody, expressive tones, and a whole lot of virtuosic dexterity. Rabien, as you would expect from the master, produces some exquisite crooning notes up high and contributes other extraordinary, totally unexpected lyric licks, and leads a thoroughly seamless, ultimately deeply moving performance. Special praise is due to contrabassoonist Stephan Krings for successfully negotiating some of Bach’s fastest low bass passages with equanimious nimble clarity.

The sound, recorded in the Marienmünster Abbey near Detmold, is exquisite in two channels with a touch more ambient information and welcome warmth in SACD stereo, and of course surround with that layer.

—Laurence Vittes

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