I was not currently looking for another reading of Bach's "24" or "48." With harpsichord and piano versions already well established by mainstream artists and niche classics alike in my collection, it would have to be something special to add yet another version of Bach's keyboard cycle to my collection.
I hit the button to "test" what a string quartet would do with the WTC. I already had the Emerson Quartet's Bach CD of "fugues," and liked that sound, and understood what a four-part ensemble can do to a 3- or 4-part fugue: give it clarity. Each line is performed by a different person, and the art becomes how well the ensemble balances and where they decide to make things come out of balance for affect.
The Modern String Quartet has recorded the WTC 1 and not only do I think the result is better than what the Emerson did with Bach earlier, their arrangements and interpretations of both the preludes and the fugues are extremely well-done.
I have written before about how Bach's music is often open to a lot of different interpretive choices; while not all of them are going to be historically-congruent with the types of performances Bach could have expected to have heard, some of them can nevertheless be quite rewarding. I think it is unfair to say something about Bach's music makes his music that way—that is to say, it must be something that works too with other composers, maybe others from the Baroque. But as much as I'd like that to be true, I am guessing it might just be Bach's choices in harmony and the quality of his "subjects" that makes it so, in the final analysis.
There are a few spots where intonation challenges the ensemble; I would not have played F# major pieces in, well, F# major as a musician myself. They have tried, and occasionally the odd keys that are difficult on normally-tuned stringed instruments present a challenge.
Many times they take on a movement in a way that may be in contrast to what we're expecting (in terms of intensity and tempo) with a favorite reading from the keyboard. And while initially this may be a disappointment because of the lack of familiarity, in the end, it often is a pleasant contrast. What's most surprising, however, is the "big" sound some preludes take on with 3 or 4 folks playing at full tilt. Sounds like a chamber orchestra and the result can be shocking and extremely fulfilling. It's only when the fugue starts that you wish there had been more material… it just goes to underscore how well some of Bach's music really does lend itself to adaptation and arrangement.
The recorded sound is nicely done; I'd almost say it is the type of sound I cherish most; there's reverberation, but it's tasteful and the players each take different positions on the right and left sides of the stereo image for an all-around nice spread of voicing. The ensemble does use vibrato, but it's not done to the point of sounding too un-baroque or taxing the way I can find a lot of vibrato treatment from "traditional" ensembles to be.
My favorite is the A-minor set, tracks 15-16 on the "second CD" (I purchased mine through iTunes).
If you really want to hear Bach's WTC 1 in a different way, this alternative is fulfilling.