JS Bach: Fugues: Well-Tempered Clavier – Fugues for four and five voices

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COMPOSERS: JS Bach
LABELS: DG
ALBUM TITLE: JS Bach
WORKS: Fugues: Well-Tempered Clavier – Fugues for four and five voices
PERFORMER: Emerson Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 477 7458

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Empowered by their recording of the Art of Fugue, the Emersons have returned to Bach for what some readers may find a rather more contentious project. Whatever Bach’s intentions in his fugal ‘compendium’, a complete performance radiates a cumulative narrative, whereas the quartet arrangements Mozart and Forster made of fugues from the ‘48’ necessarily result in a sequence of ‘bleeding chunks’. And since the fugues inexorably grow out of their preludes the dismemberment is disorientating, for all that the Emersons methodically advance through the 4-part specimens of Books 1 and 2 before returning to Book 1 for the two 5-parters. Then there’s the matter of (undeniably justifiable) transposition. Part of the point of the ‘48’ after all is that Bach explores all 24 major and minor keys. ‘Baroquistas’ will certainly take issue with some of the performing decisions here: the imperious ‘French’ brio of the D major is airbrushed out, slurs can sound oleaginously anachronistic, and off-beat entries are blunted by ambiguous articulation. But there’s a generosity of spirit coupled with some fine playing – the incisive G minor BWV885, the noble C sharp minor – which forges a moving rapprochement between the Kantor of St Thomas’s and the world of Beethoven’s late quartets. Paul Riley