BACH Fugues / Emerson String Quartet


Fugues from
The Well-tempered Clavier
(for String Quartet)
Emerson String Quartet
Int. Release 02 May. 2008
0289 477 7458 7
The Emerson String Quartet in a best selling Bach world-premiere recording


Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750)
The Well-Tempered Clavier: Book 1, BWV 846-869

arr. for strings by E. A. Förster

The Well-Tempered Clavier: Book 2, BWV 870-893

Arranged for String Quartet by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, KV 405

arr. for strings by E. A. Förster

Emerson String Quartet

The Well-Tempered Clavier: Book 1, BWV 846-869

arr. for strings by E. A. Förster

Emerson String Quartet, Da-Hong Seetoo

Da-Hong Seetoo, Emerson String Quartet

Gesamtspielzeit: 57:17

Technically speaking the Emerson String Quartet are unimpeachable, with meticulous internal balance and intonation sustained at all times, remarkable tonal matching between the instruments and precision phrasing and dynamics. There is a beguiling transparency about their sound-world that allows every voice to register with the kind of resonance-free clarity which only a harpsichord could surpass, and DG's engineering strikes an ideal balance between ambient atmosphere and directional impact. The arrangements . . . are both undistractingly skilful and idiomatic.

. . . there's a generosity of spirit coupled with some fine playing . . . a moving rapprochement between the Kantor of St Thomas's and the world of Beethoven's late quartets.

So beeindruckend homogen, als strömten die vier Stimmen aus einem einzigen Instrument.

Ces transcriptions intéressent évidemment parce qu'elles permettent d'écouter ces chefs-d'oeuvre dans d'autres couleurs instrumentales que celles des instruments à clavier . . . elles nous donnent la possibilité de suivre les voix des fugues avec plus de facilité que lorsqu'elles sont interprétées sur clavier . . . le quatuor Emerson ne manque . . . pas de tension dans son jeu, son style d'interprétation étant non seulement virtuose, mais aussi chargé d'énergie, d'électricité, qui font ici merveille. Les tempos sont ainsi très animés dans l'ensemble, avec des intonations assez accentuées, une certaine volonté de danser, de s'appuyer sur l'ossature rythmique des pièces . . . la qualité technique, tant au niveau de la justesse que de la mise en place, laisse l'auditeur sur une impression d'évidence et de fluidité. Ce sont cependant les fugues lentes qui nous touchent le plus. Un beau disque, donc, . . . qui passionnera tous les amateur de fugues et de Bach . . . Emerson font désormais partie de la grande histoire de la musique enregistrée.

    Fugues From Bach's “48" On Strings

    Music is the most self-referential of the arts. Because individual pitches, the elements that make it up, have no external associations, repetition becomes music's most important organizing principle. It is, therefore, no surprise to learn that the earliest rules governing composition concern the imitation of a melodic line: the setting of punctum contra punctum ("note against note"), or counterpoint, which developed in the Middle Ages. The first forms of musical imitation were the rondellus (round) and caccia (catch). By the late 15th century the compositional procedure common to both these forms was dubbed fuga (a Latin word meaning “flight" or “escape"). A century later, in the Baroque era, the word fugue became the generic term for a piece involving imitative counterpoint.

    In a typical fugue there is one principal theme, known as the subject, which is played on its own at the outset. This musical idea is subsequently stated by all the other voices in succession, and, as the subject's many further possibilities are then explored, a highly developed web of repetitions evolves. These sometimes follow in close succession, a process known as “stretto", and are often varied in transitional passages known as episodes. Occasionally the subject itself can be altered during the course of the fugue: presented with its original melodic intervals going in the opposite direction (inversion), with lengthened or shortened note values (augmentation or diminution), or even backwards (retrograde).

    Unquestionably, the greatest examples of fugal writing are by J. S. Bach, composed throughout his career and found everywhere in his instrumental and vocal music. In 1722 he compiled a set of preludes and fugues for solo keyboard in all 24 keys of the major-minor tonal system, which he called The Well-Tempered Clavier; a second collection of 24 preludes and fugues followed 22 years later. Taken together, these two books, often called the “48", represent one of Bach's most significant creations. With the term “well-tempered", he was referring to a system of tuning whereby pieces in every possible key would sound “in tune". On the keyboard where G sharp is the same note as A flat, a certain degree of compromise in the overall tuning system is necessary. On string instruments, however, minute inflections of tuning are possible and pure intonation can be achieved.

    Bach's fugues in the Well-Tempered Clavier display inexhaustible variety. The lengths of the subjects range from the concise four-note subject of BWV 849 to the expansive 31 notes of BWV 865. Furthermore, the melodic shape of each fugue subject differs enormously; it can be made up primarily of stepwise motion, or consist of many skips.

    In many fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier, the subject is accompanied by a second distinct musical idea, known as a countersubject, which runs through the whole piece. An important prerequisite of the countersubject is that it makes musical sense stated either above or below the fugue subject (invertible counterpoint). BWV 886, one of the most sublime fugues in the entire collection, combines a serene diatonic subject with a poignantly expressive descending chromatic line in the countersubject.

    Following the Baroque aesthetic of having a unified affect, one single emotional feeling, pervading an entire piece, each fugue has its own distinctly expressive content. Some fugues, such as BWV 876, BWV 878, and BWV 892, are deliberately written in stile antico, simulating the vocal polyphony of a Renaissance mass. BWV 865, on the other hand, is clearly instrumental in character, and BWV 850 conjures up the unabashed joy of an orchestral piece in the style of a French overture.

    Finally, Bach's treatment of the musical language itself in the Well-Tempered Clavier is nothing short of miraculous. The fugues range from the diatonic clarity of BWV 846 and BWV 862 to the intricate chromaticism of BWV 857 and BWV 859. Chromaticism reaches its extreme in BWV 869; the tortured subject employs all twelve notes of the chromatic scale, and the entire fugue was dubbed by Bach's great biographer Philipp Spitta as a “crown of thorns".

    For more than 50 years after his death, Bach's music was virtually forgotten. It was not until 1801 that the Well-Tempered Clavier finally appeared in print. Nevertheless, even during this period of neglect by the general public, there was a small group of devotees who kept Bach's music alive through private performances and the circulation of his music in handwritten copies. Among the most prominent members of this select circle was Baron van Swieten in Vienna. A high-ranking civil servant who was also a sophisticated amateur musician, van Swieten had acquired a choice collection of manuscript copies of music by Handel and the Bach family.

    Around the time Mozart left the service of Salzburg's Archbishop Colloredo in the spring of 1782, he became acquainted with van Swieten, who proudly introduced the young composer to his collection of music by Bach and Handel. Mozart was bowled over by the works he encountered, and immersed himself in this music whenever possible. In a letter dated 10 April 1782, he described his activities: “Every Sunday at 12 noon I go to visit Baron von Suiten [sic] - and there we play nothing but Handl [sic] and Bach. I am just putting together a collection of Bach fugues - that is Sebastian as well as Emanuel and Friedemann Bach."

    Among the works in van Swieten's collection that impressed Mozart most deeply was Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. He transcribed five four-part fugues from the second book of the “48" for string quartet, retaining the keys for all but one (the original key of BWV 877 is transposed down from D sharp minor to D minor). Although these arrangements were not published during Mozart's lifetime, they were almost certainly performed privately at van Swieten's home. Mozart's exposure to Bach spurred a keen interest in his own writing of fugues, and soon he had composed several examples for solo keyboard, culminating in the powerful Fugue in C minor for two pianos, K.426, in December 1783. His immersion in Bach's fugues also enriched Mozart's compositional craft as a whole. The final movement of the String Quartet in G, K.387, dating from this period, is a masterly fugue cast in sonata form, and this procedure reappears most breathtakingly in the finale of his “Jupiter" Symphony, K.551 (1788).

    Another composer based in Vienna who became enamored of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier was Emanuel Aloys Förster (1748-1823). He settled in Vienna shortly after Mozart arrived there, and knew both him and Haydn well. Förster was a prolific composer of chamber music, composing over 50 string quartets and quintets. He also wrote a pedagogical treatise on composition for which he devised a number of fugues as examples. Given his dual interest in chamber music and fugal writing, it was only logical that Förster should transcribe Bach's complete Well-Tempered Clavier for strings. These are primarily for trio and quartet, corresponding to the three- and four-part fugues, but there are also two quintets for the two five-part fugues and a duo for the solitary two-part fugue.
    The quartet transcriptions of Well-Tempered Clavier included on this CD, a procedure validated not only by Mozart and Förster, but also by Beethoven, who arranged the five-part fugue, BWV 867 - follow in the spirit of Bach himself: the Leipzig master transcribed many of his own as well as other composers' works. Bach's compositions express musical ideas that transcend the original medium for which they were created. Hearing these four- and five-part fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier with one distinct instrument on each part allows us to experience one of tonal music's greatest monuments in an entirely new light.

    Eric Wen

    original German text of Mozart's letter of 10 April 1782:

    ich gehe alle Sonntags um 12 uhr zum Baron von Suiten - und da wird nichts gespiellt als Handl und Bach - ich mach mir eben eine Collection von den bachischen fugen - so wohl Sebastian als Emanuel und Friedemann Bach...

    The Emersons on Playing Bach Fugues

    It is a privilege for us to play Bach, who wrote no string quartets. After learning a great deal from recording and performing The Art of Fugue, we now embrace the challenge of adapting our playing to music conceived specifically for keyboard.Bach's ideas in these fugues are so pure that they transcend the characteristics of the instrument for which he wrote them. One benefit of this realization of the Well-Tempered Clavier is that separate instrumentscan make it easier for listeners to hear the various voices and the way the statements of the subject and countersubject are interwoven. 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.

    Although an exploration of all 24 major and minor keys was central to Bach's conception, both Mozart and Foerster changed the keys of some of these works when necessary to create more resonance for string instruments.Their transpositions also make those fugues easier for intonation - the key of D sharp minor, for example, is practically non-existent for a string player. Occasionally the second-lowest part dips below the range of the viola, so certain adjustments have to be made. Here and there Förster's solutions make the writing more idiomatic for strings, but when we discovered further discrepancies - harmonies and rhythmshe sometimes changed for no apparent reason - we felt that our loyalty had to be to Bach's original.

    Eugene Drucker