Harmonia Mundi's Bach: Alio modo features esteemed period viol consort Fretwork performing keyboard works of Johann Sebastian Bach as adapted by group leader Richard Boothby. The idea of playing Bach on a viol consort would have been a little retro for the composer, who was a capable violinist himself and regularly led groups that were among the predecessors of modern orchestras. Bach's flowing contrapuntal lines lie well on these instruments, and in terms of getting his counterpoint across, this setting works, although a good organist or harpsichordist is perfectly capable of achieving the same end in this music. Not every listener can stand to listen to a recording of a pipe organ at home, as it reminds them of being in church, and others may share actress Joan Crawford's alleged disdain of the harpsichord. Perhaps this is the audience Fretwork is hoping to reach -- indeed, a listener afflicted with such inclinations would be missing out on some of Bach's finest musical utterances.
The playing here is fabulous, as smooth as silk and perfectly in tune, although it's odd to hear a viol consort in music that is so "tonal," as much of the standard literature for viol consorts predates the regular establishment of keys, tending toward modality and therefore sounding harmonically thornier. Sometimes the purity of the tonality lends a harmonium-like "wheezing squeezebox" sound to the proceedings, and the lack of vibrato employed by Fretwork seems a little alien to Bach. Nevertheless, as a recording Bach: Alio modo is very easy on the ears; it is like a very still pool with ripples slowly radiating out from the center. And toward the end of the disc, two pieces from The Musical Offering are played, and as this openly scored work is well-established among ensembles of string players, we find ourselves nearing a somewhat familiar shore toward the end of the disc.
Reviewing a disc such as Bach: Alio modo is potentially a hot potato; one doesn't want to damn it with too faint a praise, as it is a very fine recording. Should the public discover it, then Bach: Alio modo deserves to do well in the marketplace. Hard-core fans of J.S. Bach are probably not going to dig this one; to many of them it will fall somewhere in between the work of Ferruccio Busoni and the Windham Hill compilation The Bach Variations. Look for Fretwork's Bach: Alio modo to become a hot topic over the classical music water coolers of the world; perhaps one should not risk being left out of the conversation.