Phantasm - J.S. Bach: The Well-Tempered Consort – II - MusicWeb International

In this superb new recording, Phantasm present a beautifully realised transcription of preludes and fugues from both sets of Bach’s monumental survey of all 24 major and minor keys, known as The Well-Tempered Clavier (BWV846-869 and BWV 870-893). In the short but informative notes, Laurence Dreyfus, Director of the consort and a leading musicologist, outlines an intention to unearth principles, impulses and musical reference points that may have been operating in Bach’s inner mind when constructing these masterpieces.

To my ears there certainly are echoes of orchestral and vocal works in these chamber pieces that are not obvious or forthcoming in their original keyboard form. For instance, the prelude in G minor from Book 2 (BWV885) bears rhythmic and melodic similarity to the cello part in “Geduld! Wenn mich falsche Zungen stechen” from the St Matthew Passion and the fugue in F major from Book 1 (BWV 856) brings to mind the interplay of strings in the first movement of the third of the Brandenburg Concertos (BWV1048). It is remarkable how fully realised these transformed pieces are, and it is a testament to Dreyfus’ deep understanding of Bach’s polyphonic textures, that render them utterly compelling.

Given the consistently outstanding standard of playing throughout the 24 pieces, identifying highlights seems a hollow exercise. However, I am particularly drawn to the sonorities in the fugues in E major (BWV 878) and C minor (BWV 871) from Book 2 and the fugue in D-sharp minor (BWV 853) from Book 1 which render them archaic in their effect and bring to mind the broad melodic lines of consort music from a century and more earlier. The recording itself perfectly suits these pieces. There is clear separation of the parts throughout, allowing each strand to be followed, but the production is also open and warm. It strikes me that the size and space afforded within Magdalen Chapel, Oxford is perfect for such small scale chamber ensembles, but the engineers should also be roundly congratulated for so perfectly capturing this music.

I first became aware of Phantasm on the release of Bach’s Art of Fugue in the late 1990s, and it has been a great pleasure to follow their recordings since, each one marked by erudite scholarship, and expressive and convincing playing. Engineering of their more recent performances (particularly for the Linn label) is consistently outstanding and it all comes together superbly in this second instalment which, unlike the first (reviewed here) is solely dedicated to preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier. That first disc received outstanding reviews across the board, but this new recording is an even greater triumph. I hardly need to add that it will unquestionably be considered one of the recorded classical music highlights of the year.

MusicWeb International
08 April 2021