Bach, The Art of Fugue, Emerson Quartet (DG, 2003)
The trick with Art of Fugue is to provide as much variety as possible, to prevent a performance from slipping into a dry academic exposition. This the Emersons did, limiting vibrato for the most part, to keep the lines and intonation clean, but keeping a sort of cool, almost flavorless approach only in Contrapunctus 1. In the other four-part contrapunctus movements, chosen to feature as many different forms of the subject (inversion, decorated, etc.) as possible, the tempo and style of attack and articulation varied and the different voices became more individuated. By including three of the four canons, out of order and dispersed throughout, different combinations of instruments were also featured: viola and cello in fluid runs in the canon at the octave; viola and second violin in the canon at the tenth; second violin, viola, and cello in the emphatic canon in augmentation and contrary motion, balanced against first violin, viola, and cello in the mirror fugue of Contrapunctus 13. The set was then tidily concluded by the unfinished final contrapunctus, for which the musicians returned to mostly straight tone, with a slower and more delicate approach that set up Bach's signature, the B-A-C-H theme woven into the fabric, and the trailing off of the various voices, the composer's gesture to the infinite.
Simon Chin, Emerson String Quartet at Baird Auditorium masters the ‘Art of Fugue’ (Washington Post, December 9)
The next concert by the Emerson Quartet on this series (January 10, 2015), will feature quartets by Mozart, Shostakovich, and Beethoven.