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Emerson Quartet and the Fugue

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Bach, The Art of Fugue, Emerson Quartet
(DG, 2003)
Bach's Art of Fugue can be played on a keyboard instrument, but the composer's notation of each voice on an individual staff seems to encourage performance by four instruments, or even a consort of instruments. The Emerson Quartet's recording of the work is over a decade old now, but the current formation of the group, with cellist Paul Watkins, returned to it for their Sunday evening concert at the National Museum of Natural History, on the series presented by the Smithsonian Associates. In a nod to the unwieldy nature of the work, the Emersons made a selection of eleven movements -- Bach seems to have to intended the piece for counterpoint study, making an incomplete performance quite appropriate -- pairing it with Beethoven's op. 130. To draw the program together around the compositional process of the fugue, they performed this quartet with its original conclusion, the monumental Große Fuge, numbered separately as op. 133.

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.

Other Reviews:

Simon Chin, Emerson String Quartet at Baird Auditorium masters the ‘Art of Fugue’ (Washington Post, December 9)
The Beethoven was more problematic, but not in the opening movement, where there was a feeling of the quartet coming back to something much more comfortable for them. On first violin here, Eugene Drucker's intonation was not always on the mark, and but it seemed that the lighter tone favored by Watkins on cello was leading the group to explore softer dynamic territory, not overpowering Drucker, for example, in the fiddle reel of the second movement and the genteel sweetness of the other dance movement. The first slow movement was not too fast, paced like an easy ride through the country, while the fifth movement had an inward-turned, prayerful quality. The Große Fuge, on the other hand, was played savagely, perhaps to jar us out of the hymn-like stasis of what preceded it, and it was unpleasantly brutal, except for the quieter middle section.

The next concert by the Emerson Quartet on this series (January 10, 2015), will feature quartets by Mozart, Shostakovich, and Beethoven.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

We really enjoyed this concert, as did others. Each piece received a standing ovation.