WORKS: Die Kunst der Fuge, BWV 1080
PERFORMER: Keller Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 457 849-2
Should we play The Art of Fugue at all? Albert Schweitzer described it as ‘purely theoretical’. For Wilfrid Mellers, ‘Bach plays to God and himself in an empty church…’. Its instrumentation is unspecified, though most fits on the keyboard. Alternatives include orchestrations (Scherchen, Stiedry), one grotesque travesty for wind band (Roman Vlad) and some imaginative mixed ensembles (Amsterdam Baroque Soloists, Musica Antiqua Köln).
String quartets have, for me, been too deeply rooted in later traditions – until this inspired recording by the Keller Quartet. The players’ lines are tonally integrated as on a keyboard, but minimal vibrato and spatial separation clarify the glorious counterpoint. They phrase in brief motifs rather than in long gluey lines. They delicately draw out parts hidden in the texture. Notes beyond their range are cleverly replaced – I could swear I heard the cello ‘lend’ one to the viola!
Anything but ‘Bach playing to himself’, this is the committed presentation of immensely varied music, some the apotheosis of technical ingenuity (the invertible fugues, the final unfinished tour de force), some the contemporary stuff of its time (the gripping sequences of the second fugue, the Italianate vitality of No. 9).
Sound and presentation are excellent; the booklet alone is worth the price of the elegant package.