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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Die Kunst der Fuge BWV 1080 [85:48]
Stefano PIERINI (b. 1971)
Cantai un tempo… (dopo una lettura di Monteverdi) (2017) [21:20]
Johann Sebastian BACH
From: Die Kunst der Fuge BWV 1080
Nr. 19a: Fuga a 2 Clav. [2:26]
Nr. 19b: Alio modo. Fuga a 2 Clav. [2:47]
Claudia Barainsky (soprano)
OEHMS CLASSICS OC468 [63:41 + 48:43]

Part of the enigma of J.S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue is that no indication is given in its score as to which instruments might be suited for its performance. Being in four parts, string quartet is a logical chamber-music choice, and other quartets have taken it on, including the Emerson Quartet on Deutsche Grammophon. This predecessor is of very high quality, but the delian::quartett is lighter of touch, the weight of the Emerson Quartet’s vibrato being to my mind something of a burden in Bach, something I expanded on when reviewing their Fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier.

The word ‘jaunty’ sprung to mind with the opening few fugues in this recording. Refreshingly sprightly tempi and articulation lift this music away from academic dustiness and makes it accessible and enjoyable. There will be a few fugues in which those special moments are hit with less profundity than you might appreciate in some other recordings, but this is the see-saw of balance that gives on one side and takes away from the other. There is plenty of room for a different approach, and I welcome this transparent ‘opening of a window’ onto BWV 1080, especially with the skill and subtlety on display from these performers. There is a nice flow to all of the tempi chosen here, and while the emphasis is on an airy sense of flight rather than on serious deep-rootedness there is also an acknowledgement that superficiality is a danger to be avoided. There is for instance a perfect balance here in Contrapunctus 11 a 4, in which the tempo has to accommodate swiftly moving notes in an opening that invites slow solemnity. The quartet avoids stodgy lingering while giving us all of the music’s stunning complexity, and taking us on a breathtaking intellectual ride in which both clarity of musical argument and a sense of joy are communicated. More sostenuto intensity is given to the marvellous Canon per Augmentationem in Contrario Motu taken in this case by violin and cello: still delightfully gentle of touch and inherently transparent, but a real late-night conversation between symbiotic characters. The final Fuga a 3 Soggetti is a deal-clincher for any recording in my opinion, and the delian::quartett does very well here, giving us the piece as a slow, formal dance that unfolds with movingly understated grace. Their lack of vibrato gives the music a real ‘early music’ feel which I much appreciate, bringing out that sense of BWV 1080 being the last gasp of an old world in music - something of a relic, but such a precious one indeed. That broken conclusion just vanishes into air with no anticipatory build-up, and the traditional final chorale suitably carries Bach’s bier away over the horizon with no mystic artificiality, but plenty of quiet dignity.

Bach’s complete BWV 1080 is a tough act to follow. We’re given a work written for the delian::quartett, Cantai un tempo… (dopo una lettura di Monteverdi) by Stefano Pierini, which tackles the relationship between ancient music and the ways in which we might identify with it today. Three movements with soprano alternate with three from the quartet alone, these being more or less arrangements of Monteverdi madrigals that contrast with the modern music of the text settings – the words for which are given in the booklet but only in Italian and German. Andreas Mascho’s booklet note suggests seeing these “as if originated from a palimpsest, an ancient or medieval manuscript page that was written on, then cleaned by scraping or washing and now written on again. Similarly, the new composition still shows traces of the original text.” Pierini’s chosen idiom is an artful quasi-atonality that provides maximum contrast with Monteverdi’s music; acknowledging the old master’s critical gaze over the younger composer’s shoulder while skilfully taking him on a tour of some of contemporary music’s expressionist strengths. Cynics can argue that old = better and modern = ugly, and that this piece serves merely to highlight that fact, but there is more going on here. Listen carefully, and you will hear plenty of subtle intrigue in Pierini’s score. I imagine Monteverdi raising an eyebrow, but then asking to hear it again…

The final two tracks are a kind of bonus that might as well have been left off the album. Cellist Miriam Prandi plays overdubbed pianos in the two Fuga a 2 Clav, variations on the two Contrapuncti a 3 that open the second CD. Prandi’s playing is decent enough, but the two pianos only just manage to match up vertically, and there are passages of vague almost-imprecision that turn this from an instructive example of how well this music can work on two pianos into ‘demo recording’ territory.

Recordings of The Art of Fuge with string quartet are neither entirely rare nor vastly ubiquitous. A nice alternative to the more up-beat delian::quartett might be the Keller Quartet on the ECM label, which seeks and often finds greater depths of profundity than many, their final Fuga a 3 Soggetti for instance coming in at an attenuated 10:32 compared to the present recording’s 8:40. If anything the Keller Quartet goes for even less vibrato, at times making for slightly edgy intonation, which I have to say is never an issue with the delian::quartett. Another venerable contender is the Juilliard String Quartet on Sony Classics from 1992, which offers a warmer, vibrato-rich sound, and tempi which to my ears just sound unbearably slow and flaccid. If you are looking for a perfectly recorded and refreshingly alive-sounding string quartet version of Bach’s The Art of Fuge, then this Oehms Classics release will fit the bill very well indeed.

Dominy Clements


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