Modern String Quartet, Die Kunst der Fuge: the Mood Years
A couple years ago, I'd selected a recording by the Modern String Quartet of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier for string quartet, and really liked the interpretation. More recently, they've recorded Bach's Kunst der Fuge (2013) and I figured, based upon the last recording, "why not?"
They are not the first to record this work using four stringed instruments. Among the more notable were the Julliard Quartet, the Keller Quartet, the Emerson Quartet, among baroque specialists, too. MSQ uses vibrato, but not obnoxiously so, to my ear. As a general rule, I do not like constant string vibrato, especially when it comes to performing baroque music. And when it's used on more modern repertoire, I don't like it too wide and fast. So, this recording uses vibrato, and sometimes it's too much, but nearly as much as the Emerson Quartet's use of vibrato.
For those unfamiliar with the work, the Art of the Fugue by Bach is one of his "last works," and occupies the last position in the Bach catalog before newly-found works were identified. While Bach most likely started the work in the early 1740s, it was recorded as "unfinished" by his son, CPE Bach, and published with the last fugue incomplete. Some point of controversy exists as to whether or not the bonus chorale (Vor Deinen Thron tret'ich heirmit) should be performed as part of the work. In 1751, when the piece emerged for sale, Bach's son included this so-called "deathbed chorale," recorded by Bach's student and friend Atkinol, as part of the piece, as filler for the fact that the last fugue was unfinished.
There's good reading to be had about this last fugue. One of the more wild ideas suggests that leaving it unfinished was part of the overall design, that Bach has left the solution up to the connoisseur of fugues to finish (presumably a customer of the printed score). I liked this idea, identified as part of a dissertation, and I never tire of reading what new ideas both musicians and historians have about this work. Without getting into the weeds of analysis, I have always thought it was Bach's most profound work. And I based this not on any formal analysis, but for the reaction it stirred within me upon my first hearings.
The MSQ has a very lucid recording. The parts are easily discernable and they do an excellent job at changing volume between lines to bring this clarity to us. Tempos vary; it's not an overly fast or overly slow recording, which I like. Some movements have a kick to them, which I like, and they adopt a pretty consistent tempo throughout each reading. They are also not afraid to use dynamics in articulating different themes and sections within a track. Well-done.
Is this my favorite recording? No. But I do like it better than the Keller, the Julliard, and the Emerson. Maybe it has become my favorite by a "modern string quartet," which makes me laugh. It's the actual name of the group.
The recording on CD splits between two discs. I purchased mine as a digital download on iTunes.
I don't get terribly interested in the order of fugues (but this order almost always gets discussed in notes). For what it's worth, the MSQ adopts a new ordering, for my recollection, insidering a canon early-on in the sequence, and inverting fugues 12 and 13.
As for the controversy on the "deathbed chorale," I think it's a beautiful piece of music and deserves to be heard, no matter Bach's original intentions. If you don't think it belongs as part of DKdF, then skip it. But to me it's one of the saddest pieces of music ever written in a major key. And this may have nothing to do with the notes, but the realization by the listener or performers that this, this chorale, is Bach's last work. Maybe this isn't my favorite reading of the chorale, but I value having yet another reading, no matter its contention for "bestness." It's good enough, as is the recording.