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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Fugues from the “Well-Tempered Clavier”
(arr. Emanuel Aloys Förster (1748-1823) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), K. 405)*
Book I: Fuga I BWV 846; Fuga V BWV 850; Fuga XII BWV857; Fuga XIV BWV859; Fuga XVI BWV 861; Fuga XVII BWV 862; Fuga XVIII BWV863; Fuga XX BWV865; Fuga XXIII BWV 868; Fuga XXIV BWV 869
Book II: Fuga II BWV 876*; Fuga V BWV 874*; Fuga VII BWV 876*; Fuga VIII BWV877*; Fuga IX BWV 878*; Fuga XVI BWV 885; Fuga XVII BWV886; Fuga XXII BWV891; Fuga XXIII BWV 892; Fuga IV BWV 849; Fuga XXII BWV867
Emerson String Quartet (Da-Hong Seetoo (violin II) in 5-voiced fugues)
rec. New York, American Academy of Arts and Letters, December 2007
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4777458 [57:17] 

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Eugene Drucker in his short comment ‘The Emersons on playing Bach Fugues’ in the booklet for this release, states that, “Bach’s ideas in these fugues are so pure that they transcend the characteristics of the instrument for which he wrote them.” This is arguable, but is likely to become the essential point on which many listeners’ appreciation of this recording will hinge. Whether you are a fan of the harpsichord or prefer this music played on a modern piano, you will inevitably associate its textures, voicing and expressive balance and weight with an instrument whose note is one of attack and decay, and also one entirely without vibrato; that is unless the occasional bebung of a clavichord is a familiar sound, though one unlikely to be encountered often in music of this complexity.

In other words, having these works played by string instruments fundamentally alters its character. If you are familiar with this music on whatever keyboard you will have to adjust and become used to hearing much loved counterpoint in a new setting, and either accept it as chamber music in its own right, or wonder why anyone bothered when the original was perfectly wonderful in the first place. There is an academic argument as to whether Bach’s fugues for another sustaining instrument, the organ, differ sufficiently from those of the Well Tempered Clavier to make that character of the music “transcend the characteristics of the instrument for which he wrote them”. I’m not going to enter into this debate, beyond indicating it as just one reason for imagining that recordings such as this will polarise opinion. Divorcing these fugues from the technically problematic preludes does tend to emphasise this aspect of such a programme, although the playing on this recording takes this set of fugues far beyond becoming a purely academic exercise. With the Emerson Quartet’s previous Bach outing with their best-selling The Art of Fugue this will have been less of a source of controversy. Bach’s score for this work doesn’t indicate specific instrumentation, and the music has been arranged for just about any instrumental combination you can imagine, although there are some who will always argue that the tradition is ever-present for performance at the keyboard.

Another reason why opinion may be divided on this recording is the style of performance. The Emerson Quartet makes no concessions to current early music performance practice trends, and their romantically expressive, vibrato-laden sound may sound unbearably old-fashioned to some ears. To a certain extent it reminded me of those old Ars Rediviva recordings which, despite a certain sentimental attachment, now fail to grab me in the same way as more recent Bach interpretations by artists like Reinhard Goebel. The Emerson Quartet is not a early music ensemble, and neither are these arrangements from that period. Listening to these performances there is an argument to be had as to whether, having chosen not to enter the realms of early-music performance practice, there is a case for demanding an even more adventurous trip down this alternative road. Again, I am not criticising for this decision in what is after all a set of arrangements with little enough performing tradition, let alone having any place in that of being ‘historically informed’. My concern is that the contrast between fugues is placed within too narrow a framework. If we’re going romantic, or even modern, then let’s see how far we can go – stretching lines, digging deeper, to place these works in those realms which were freed by the strangeness of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge. Having played the disc through a number of times there always seems a point at which my brain switches off, and I only start noticing the music properly when it has stopped. This is not because the music or the performances are intrinsically dull, just that, like a sentence with too many words such as this, everything just somehow ends up sounding pretty much the same after a certain amount of time, so that you stop paying attention to what is being ....

Whatever the arguments and complaints, there is a most certain validity to recording arrangements of this nature, especially when signed off by names like Mozart. Mozart immersed himself in the fugues of ‘the 48’ in 1782, applying himself to the manuscripts in Baron von Swieten’s Viennese collection in the spring of that year, and subsequently using the experience to enrich his own work. On its own terms this is a very nice string quartet/quintet recording, placed in the rich acoustic of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and to my mind given the correct balance between presence and detail on the one hand, atmosphere on the other. The ‘slower’ fugues seem to work the best in this setting, with the undulating richness of BWV 859 and BWV 869 creating their own subtle beauty. The articulation of the livelier fugues is also approached with its own accurate intensity, but as textures thicken the Emersons are hoisted somewhat by their own collective petard. The stated intention is “that separate instruments can make it easier for listeners to hear the various voices”, but is followed by “Since we all play the same thematic material, we’ve had to try harder than ever to achieve similarity or unanimity of style and approach.” Of course there needs to be unity and consistency, but clarity surely comes through a greater hierarchy of voices – those which lead, and those which are of lesser importance at any given moment. Listen to something like BWV 877 and yes, you will hear each player entering with the principal subject with greater emphasis, but the busy goings-on elsewhere don’t really enhance the clarity. Also the more familiar rhythmic bounce of the music is more clogged with those longer notes, which in stringed instruments refuse to decay and ‘get out of the way’. My point is more importantly that, with each voice having the same or similar character, it is bringing us back to that common denominator of lack of real contrast. Nice stereo separation of the individual players is no substitute for this. One of my all-time desert-island sets is Sviatoslav Richter playing the entire Das Wolhtemperierte Klavier, and, taking another fairly random dip with his BWV 878 one can hear each entry of the main subject as a kind of prayer – sung each time by a different person. While not wanting to be unkind, the Emerson players sound more like one of those mirror portraits, four identical people saying as near enough the same thing as makes little difference one from the other.

I could go on for pages, but in the end you will have to make up your own mind, and if you have the opportunity to have a listen before purchasing I would strongly urge you so to do. In summing up, this is a gorgeous sounding, beautifully performed and recorded disc, and I wish I could muster more enthusiasm. I’m in no way against Bach being played on whatever instrument makes him sound good, so please don’t come away with the impression that I’m stuck with my preconceptions of some ideal of piano or harpsichord sound exclusively for this repertoire. The Emerson Quartet’s Art of Fugue sold hugely, so no doubt Deutsche Grammophon had incentive enough to see a follow-up release, and I wish all concerned the best of luck. Damon Runyon would just say it’s ‘easy on the ears’ and leave it at that, no further intellectual posturing required. Time will tell if this becomes a best-seller, but for me it will always be more of a supplement than a staple of my Bach diet.

Dominy Clements 

 


 


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