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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "la fantasia della ragione"

Quadro Hypothesis
rec: Feb 2006, Valbonne (Gard, F), Chartreuse
Profil - PH08034 ( 2008) (60'16")

Johann Sebastian BACH: Fugue for recorder, discant viol, cello and theorbo (after BWV 952); Sonata for recorder, discant viol and bc (after BWV 529); Sonata for recorder, discant viol and bc (after BWV 1037); Sonata for recorder, lyra viol and bc (after BWV 1027 & 1039); Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791): Adagio and fugue in d minor (KV 404a,1) (after J.S. Bach, BWV 853); Adagio and fugue in g minor (KV 404a,2) (after J.S. Bach, BWV 883); Adagio and fugue in F (KV 404a,3) (after J.S. Bach, BWV 882)

Leopoldo d'Agostino, recorder; Cinzia Zotti, viola da gamba; Claudia Poz, cello; Ugo Nastrucci, theorbo, lute

What are you going to do when the music you want to play is performed and recorded very often? You always could try to be different from anyone else. But there is the danger of overdoing it, of trying too hard to be different. And that is what happens here, I'm afraid. It is not that the players of Quadro Hypothesis aren't good musicians, although there are some things which give reason for criticism. More about that later. Let us first have a look at how they try to be different.

All compositions on this disc are very well-known. It is difficult if not impossible to shed any new light on them, which doesn't withhold many musicians from recording them for the umpteenth time, though. But - and that deserves praise - Quadro Hypothesis apparently didn't see the need to follow their example. And so they decided to perform these works in a different way, and arrange them for other instruments than those they were written for. There is nothing wrong with that: almost any composer of the 17th and 18th century at some stage arranged his own compositions or works by others from past and present.

One of the members of the ensemble, Cinzia Zotti, goes at great length in her programme notes to explain the ensemble's approach to the music they have chosen for this programme. She starts by quoting Nikolaus Harnoncourt, one of the founding fathers of the historical performance practice, stating that "in the Baroque period music was seen as 'speech in notes', and the soloist built his 'reading' on the rules of rhetoric". Music could convince and move an audience just as well if not better than words. "Even if the subject of a discourse is at the same time indescribable and exciting, that does not mean that it cannot be expressed. In that way, the musical score became a magical 'place of the unsaid'", Ms Zotti writes. This explains the title of this disc: 'la fantasia della ragione' - "the fantasy of reason". Fantasy and reason are two of the main features of the baroque style. It is the fantasy which plays the leading role in these performances, as the performers try to express the content of the compositions with different means than were intended by the composer. The use of contrasting instruments serves the purpose of underlining the character of this repertoire as a kind of 'discourse'. In the light of what Cinzia Zotti writes one may assume they try to convince and move the listener as much as the composer intended. But that is exactly what this disc fails to do.

There are several reasons for this. One is the choice of instruments. The disc opens with one of Bach's Trio Sonatas for organ (BWV 529). The trio texture almost invites performers to play this piece with two treble instruments and bc. There are a number of recordings where the trio sonatas are performed this way (for instance by the King's Consort on Hyperion). But not every instrument is equally suited to play the upper parts. Here the recorder is used alongside the discant viol. It is in particular the latter instrument which causes trouble. I find this choice rather unconvincing for historical reasons. In Germany the instrument was hardly used in Bach's time. It was very popular in France, and in Germany only composers who had a special interest in the French style used it, in particular Telemann. But Bach never has used it in any of his compositions, and music written for violin can't always be simply played on the discant viol. Here it just doesn't work very well, also because the balance between the recorder and the viol is less than ideal. If the recorder plays forte, in particular in the upper register, the viol is overpowered. One of the features of Bach's Trio sonatas for organ is the equal treatment of both upper parts. That equality has largely disappeared here. One could argue that even the choice of the recorder in Bach's music isn't very logical. In his instrumental works Bach very seldom used the recorder, and in his days the instrument was on its way out.

The next work is a sonata known in two versions: one for harpsichord and viola da gamba (BWV 1027), a second for two transverse flutes and bc (BWV 1039). The latter is the oldest, but is for its part an arrangement of a composition for two violins and bc (which has been lost). In the version for viola da gamba the second flute part is transposed down one octave and the harpsichord plays the other flute part and the basso continuo. What we get here is a combination of the two versions: the first treble part is played on the recorder and the harpsichord plays the basso continuo. The strange thing is that the gamba part is played here on the lyra viol. This is not a specific instrument but rather a way of playing the viol, and was practised in England in the 17th century. To use it in Bach is rather odd, in particular as there is no musical reason for this. The following harpsichord fugue is played with recorder, discant viol, cello and theorbo, but I can't say it really works well.

Mozart came into touch with Johann Sebastian Bach's music through Baron Gottfried van Swieten, and became immediately hooked. He arranged some of Bach's fugues for string trio and added an adagio of his own to every fugue. Here the material has been devided over the various instruments. The violin part is played on the recorder, the viola part on the discant viol and the cello part - surprise - on the cello. Playing Bach on the lyra viol is anachronistic, so is playing Mozart on a recorder and a discant viol. It doesn't surprise that the original Mozart pieces - the adagios - are the least satisfying. And that has also to do with the playing of the ensemble.

It is time to say something about the interpretation, if you would consider these performances as such. Like I said all musicians are good, but that doesn't mean I agree with their performances. I am all for good articulation, but that doesn't include playing staccato which is frequently practised here. I feel that the music sometimes almost falls apart because of it. The first adagio by Mozart is the most extreme example. But I also find the playing sometimes a little stiff, in particular the playing of the discant viol. I listened to a recording with original compositions for the discant viol by Johann Melchior Molter, recorded by Simone Eckert and Hamburger Ratsmusik (NCA 60141-215), and there the instrument sounds much better, and the playing is more natural and fluent.

The disc ends with a piece which is written by either Bach or his pupil Johann Gottlieb Goldberg (BWV 1037). It is originally scored for two violins and bc. The violin parts are played on recorder and discant viol respectively, but what is most bizarre is that the first movement has been replaced by the Adagio KV 410 by Mozart, according to Cinzia Zotti "an amusing variant which is deliberately dedicated to Mozart's enthusiasm for Bach". I can't find anything amusing in it, as the result is anything but convincing because of a lack of coherence.

The best arrangements are those which give the impression they could have been written by the composer himself. That is not how the arrangements on this programme sound. If the aim of this disc was to convince or move the audience then it has failed, at least for me. The wish to be different turns out to be counterproductive. I find this disc pretty annoying, and I am sure I don't return to it ever.

Johan van Veen ( 2009)

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